Potentials of multifunctional thematic language documentation

Schnell, Stefan
Schnell, Stefan
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We report on the specific potentials of a thematically restricted spoken text corpus from the Oceanic language Vera’a (North Vanuatu, 500+ speakers), and its benefits for both the community and academic research. Vera’a is the first language of nearly all community members, and is used in nearly all domains of daily life. Instead of aiming to record a wide range of communicative events (Himmelmann 1998, 2006) in the Vera’a speech community, our collaborative documentation project has focussed on a small number of specific thematic domains whose endangerment community members are especially concerned about (cf Terrell 2014). These are: literature (myths and moral stories), knowledge of flora and fauna, and certain aspects of material culture (house and canoe construction). We compiled a corpus of spoken narratives, fish and plant descriptions, and the video-filmed interaction during construction of a house over several days. While community linguists transcribed all recorded texts, some also edited narrative and descriptive texts in written form, and wrote definitions of parts of houses and building techniques. The result is a thematically focussed, but minimally varied corpus of different text varieties that differ along parameters of register and genre, as well as medium (Biber & Conrad 2009). In response to the particular concerns of the speech community, we have been producing various materials: a book of stories (author), a movie (author) on house construction including shots of definitions of key terms in Vera’a and Bislama, thematic encyclopaedic dictionaries of fish and plant species (ongoing). Additionally, our minimally varied corpus lends itself to systematic of cross- register and –genre investigations that bear ramification on the description of the language and some typological issues. We exemplify this with regards to patterns of pronominalisation and topicalisation across narrative and descriptive texts, which are in part typologically unique and thus of particular relevance to an understanding of these structures from a cross-language perspective. In sum, thematic focus can be a particular strength for multifunctional documentation, as proposed by Terrell (2014). Nevertheless, we also show that minimal text variation, while coinciding with the particular interests and concerns of the community, is of particular value for descriptive as well as typologically relevant research (Mosel 2012, 2014). References Biber, Douglas & Susan Conrad. 2009. Register, genre, and style. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Himmelmann, Nikiolaus P. Documentary and descriptive linguistics. Linguistics 36, 161-195. Himmelmann, Nikolaus P. 2006. Language documentation: What is it and what is it good for? In Essentials of language documentation edited by Jost Gippert, Nikolaus P. Himmelmann, and Ulrike Mosel, 1-30. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Mosel, Ulrike. 2012. Creating educational materials in language documentation projects - creating innovative resources for linguistic research. In Potentials of language documentation: Methods, analyses, and utilization. Language Documentation and Conservation Special Publication No. 3 edited by Frank Seifart, Geoffrey Haig, Nikolaus P. Himmelmann, Dagmar Jung, Anna Margetts, and Paul Trilsbek, 111-117. Hnololulu: University of Hawai’i Press. http://hdl.handle.net/10125/4524 Mosel, Ulrike. 2014. Corpus linguistic and documentary approaches in writing a grammar of a previously undescribed language. In The art and practice of grammar writing. Language Documentation and Conservation Special Publication No. 8 edited by Toshihide Nakayama and Karen Rice, 135- 157. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. http://hdl.handle.net/10125/4589 Terrell, Jacob. 2009. Endangered domains, thematic documentation and grammaticography.
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