Phoenix or relic? Documentation of languages with revitalisation in mind

Amery, Rob
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Documentation of Indigenous languages has typically focussed on structural properties of languages (phonology, morphology and syntax). Comparatively little attention has been given to the documentation of language functions or to the documentation of the most commonly occurring speech formulas. Speech formulas are often culturally-specific and idiomatic and cannot be reliably reconstituted from a knowledge of grammar and lexicon alone. Many linguists and lexicographers seem to have an implicit relic view of language. It is as if linguists have been trying to capture the ‘pure’, ‘unadulterated’ language uncontaminated by language and culture contact. Accordingly, borrowed terms and neologisms are typically omitted or under-represented in their dictionaries and wordlists. Recorded texts have tended to be myths, Dreaming narratives or texts about traditional culture, though a number of contact history stories have also been admitted. Conversations, except in the context of the former are grossly under-represented, as are texts about everyday life, especially in non-traditional contexts (such as a medical consultation with an Aboriginal Health Worker). Just how useful are many language descriptions to their owners/custodians who may one day wish to revitalise them on the basis of these recordings and analyses? How can we ensure that they are maximally useful, not only to linguists but to the people most closely associated with the languages? The author will put forward some suggestions that researchers might bear in mind for future generations when documenting and conserving languages. These include working in a programmed fashion in a range of situations and contexts and in collaboration with a range of experts in specialised fields (such as health, law, botany etc). Considerable time will be needed to produce a maximally useful description of the language and its uses. Many of these suggestions emerge from first-hand experience working with Yolngu and Pintupi people in non-traditional domains as well as from attempts to reclaim and re-introduce the Kaurna language on the basis of written 19th century documentation of the language by missionaries (notably Teichelmann & Schürmann, 1840; Teichelmann, 1857) and other observers (see Amery, 2000).
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