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Documenting “middle-sized” languages: Pitfalls and potentials

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Title: Documenting “middle-sized” languages: Pitfalls and potentials
Authors: Morrison, Michelle
Issue Date: 28 Feb 2013
Description: Implicit or explicit in many discussions of language documentation is the assumption that the languages “most worthy” of documentation projects are both endangered and spoken by small numbers of people. Because of the close ties between language documentation and endangered languages, most recommended methodologies center around small language communities. While this is important, it can lead to the neglect of documentation of little-described languages which are not as severely threatened. I will argue that documentation of larger languages is also important and can yield rich results. “Middle-sized” languages offer potential for a rich documentation, including (potentially) documentation of a wider range of speech events, access to more speakers, and documentation of speakers of varying ages, including children.

While most strategies for language documentation of small languages can be applied to larger languages, there are certain problems raised by larger languages that the language documentation literature does not adequately address. Not all of these are unique to larger languages; however they do pose special problems for such languages and necessitate greater attention. Such issues include

(1) The myth of “the” language community: for a language with several hundred thousand speakers, what exactly constitutes the language community?
(2) Multiple dialects: How does a project deal with many dialects spread across a wide geographic region?
(3) Other types of variation arising from age-graded phenomena, differing education levels, rural vs. urban speech factors, etc. The need to document variation exists in any project; however with larger languages this issue is magnified.
(4) Adequacy of documentation: How much is enough?
(5) Community materials provision: language documentation projects often produce materials
designed for extremely endangered languages; these include learner’s guides, dictionaries, folktale books, etc. While such materials may be useful for larger speech communities, other types of materials may be more beneficial to the community.
(6) (Possible) lack of community interest and support. This is also an issue for small languages, but when a language is extremely endangered, there is often acknowledgement that the language is dying. This is often not the case for larger languages which may be experiencing significant attrition, but the prevailing assumption (within and outside the language community) is that the language is “safe”.

This talk will discuss the benefits of documenting middle-sized languages and the problems such languages pose for researchers. I will offer recommendations based on my own work with Bena, spoken by approximately half a million people in Tanzania.
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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