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Talking about community

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Title: Talking about community
Authors: Kelly, Barbara
Gawne, Lauren
Issue Date: 01 Mar 2013
Description: Sociolinguists and anthropologists have long problematized the term ‘community’, whether it be framed as an ethnic community, speech community, a discourse community, or a community of practice. This paper seeks to examine the notion of community within the framework of field linguistics and language documentation by drawing on interdisciplinary approaches to the use of this term. The call for papers for this conference specifically mentions work that benefits ‘communities’ and current best-practice in linguistic fieldwork is heavily focused on working ‘with the community’. At the first two ICLDC conferences 79 of 146 papers had the word “communities/y” in the title, and 126 in the abstract. As field linguists we focus on “community engagement” and “working with the community”. However, exactly what this constitutes is rarely questioned or critiqued (although see Bowern 2008, Holton 2009).

In this paper we critically examine the meaning of ‘community’ in language documentation and identify some key features of community as discussed in the literature. We then take a more micro-level analytic approach in the context of own fieldwork experiences working with speakers of three Tibeto-Burman languages in Nepal (Sherpa, Lamjung Yolmo and Kagate) and speakers of an indigenous language in Northern Australia (Murrinh Patha). We identify some of the ways in which the notion of community appears to be more complex than at first glance in language documentation and fieldwork literature.

Sherpa, spoken in Solu-Khumbu Nepal, and Lamjung Yolmo, spoken in Lamjung Nepal, are both languages with relatively small speaker numbers and tight-knit groups or clans. However, these communities of language users do not exhibit the socio-cultural features that are typically drawn on in describing relations between linguistic fieldworkers, their practices and communities. There is no culturally-bound hierarchy within the speaker groups, and no village or areal Head who represents the language users as a group or as individuals. In contrast, are many fieldwork situations in Australia where linguistic fieldwork often requires permission from indigenous land councils who represent communities of language users. Even here, however, there are differences between who is a speaker and who is an owner, and often the most fluent speakers are not appropriate members of the community to be working with (Evans 2001).

In critically examining ideas around ‘community’ within a language documentation and fieldwork framework, we hope to encourage discussion of this issue and to create a more open frame of reference for what people mean when talking about working “with the community”.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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