Documentation of culture and language: a mutually enriching collaboration

Van Way, John
Bzang po, Bkra shis
Roche, Gerald
McKinlay, Elena
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This presentation reports on the advantages of collaboration between language documentation research and an ongoing cultural documentation project by community members. Cultural documentation involves gathering oral literature, rituals, songs, interviews, material culture, home remedies, etc., in audio or video format, leading to the publication of DVDs, books, and other products desirable to the community. Such work has immediate value for community members and contributes a sense of ownership of documentation. This presentation shows how the two endeavors – cultural documentation and language documentation – can complement each other, describes the authors’ collaboration in western China, and offers practical advice on how such collaboration can be fostered in other contexts. A natural symbiosis arises between the cultural documentation and language documentation in which the goals of one inform and enrich the other. On the one hand, the content or priorities of the cultural documentation project can help identify appropriate semantic domains for lexical elicitation and enrich the definitions of lexical items collected, as well as suggesting what kinds of discourse to elicit, and helping identify exemplary consultants. It also provides valuable texts in a variety of genres for linguistic analysis. On the other hand, the language documentation project can guide the cultural documentation project toward documenting words (e.g., body parts, terminology related to traditional crafts, activities, etc.), constructions (e.g., noun classifiers/genders, verb morphology, etc.) and phrases, idioms or speech styles, which may be at various stages of attrition or be otherwise overlooked in cultural documentation. The authors will also present their own experiences collaborating and offer practical guidance for ways to apply what they have learned to other projects. Recently, an ongoing effort by a community member to document Nyagrong Minyag Tibetan culture and oral traditions was connected with the nascent language documentation project of Nyagrong Minyag, an understudied and endangered language of Sichuan, China. Both projects have benefited greatly from this partnership; the cultural documentation providing linguistic material and the language documentation suggesting new semantic domains and alternative texts and speakers to enrich the ongoing cultural documentation. Practical advice on how to foster cultural documentation projects and link them with language documentation projects will also be discussed.
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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
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