Basic Oral Language Documentation

Reiman, Will
Reiman, Will
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The urgency of language documentation requires, as Krauss (1992:10) concludes, that “we must do some serious rethinking of our priorities.” In the past, linguists in SIL International have seen the priority as the traditional products of descriptive linguistics, namely, a grammar, a lexicon, and a corpus of interlinear texts. But we have been challenged by Himmelmann (1998) to see the distinction between language documentation (as compiling and commenting on primary recordings of speech events) and language description (as embodying the secondary results of analyzing the primary data and making generalizations). We’ve been further challenged by Woodbury (2003:45) who proposes that one could start the documentation process with purely oral techniques like producing “running UN style translations” and, instead of transcribing everything, “starting with hard-to-hear tapes and asking elders to ‘respeak’ them to a second tape slowly so that anyone with training in hearing the language can make the transcription if they wish.” This presentation describes a method of language documentation being developed by a team at SIL International, and the results of my efforts to field test it in Africa. It is an approach we call BOLD, for Basic Oral Language Documentation. Since the majority of languages that need documentation have neither an orthography nor a literate community, the method focuses on oral data gathering. A great advantage of this approach is that it allows language community members to participate fully in the language documentation process with only minimal training. The methodology’s name derives from the process of enabling native speakers to use digital audio to both compile and comment on the corpus of speech events. The process is one of re-recording the original recordings piece-by-piece while inserting oral annotations into the resulting recording. The annotations are of three types: (a) “oral transcription” with phrase-by-phrase re-iteration in careful speech, (b) “oral translation” with the insertion of clause-level translations in a language of wider communication (LWC), and (c) “oral commentary” with the insertion of explanatory comments – from members of the language community itself – in an LWC. The paper also discusses the unexpected pitfalls encountered during the implementation of this technique and how they were overcome or dealt with. In addition, areas for further development of the method will be discussed. References Himmelmann, Nikolaus. 1998. Documentary and descriptive linguistics. Linguistics 36:165–191. Krauss, Michael. 1992. The world’s languages in crisis. Language 68(1):4-10. Woodbury, Anthony C. 2003. Defining language documentation. In Peter K. Austin (ed.), Language Documentation and Description 1:35-51. London: SOAS.
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