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Review of  Lessons from Documented Endangered Languages

Reviewer: Laura C Robinson
Book Title: Lessons from Documented Endangered Languages
Book Author: K. David Harrison David S. Rood Arienne M. Dwyer
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Language Documentation
Issue Number: 20.2245

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EDITORS: Harrison, K. David; Rood, David S.; Dwyer, Arienne M.
TITLE: Lessons from Documented Endangered Languages
SERIES: Typological Studies in Language 78
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2008

Laura C. Robinson, Department of Linguistics, Rice University

This volume, edited by K. David Harrison, David S. Rood, and Arienne Dwyer, is a
collection of eleven papers each presenting new data from an endangered language
that was not previously well documented. The chapters cover languages from North
and South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia, each the result of separate
language documentation projects funded by the Volkswagen DoBes initiative
(Dokumentation bedrohter Sprachen, The Documentation of Endangered Languages).

In the first chapter, the editors outline the aims of the book, saying
''Authors...were asked to do more than simply unveil newly collected data from
previously poorly-known and endangered languages. They were asked to consider
challenges posed by these languages to current linguistic theories or models.
Beyond that, they were asked to address social and ethical issues involved in
the process of documenting, and how these might in turn affect the involved
communities (whether of speakers, rememberers or scientists)'' (3). Given this
broad aim, it is not clear that the volume has a single audience or that the
various papers are related to one another in a coherent way, but these questions
will be addressed below after a brief summary of each chapter.

In the second chapter, Umberto Ansaldo attempts to show that Sri Lanka Malay is
not a Malay-Tamil creole, as has been previously claimed. He begins by
discussing the language situation, and he tells us that he did fieldwork on
Kirinida Java, the only variety of Sri Lanka Malay that is not currently
endangered. He goes on to counter two assumptions about the language: 1) that
its main non-Malay influence was Tamil, and 2) that it is a Creole. He shows
through investigation of historical documents that Tamil-Malay intermarriage was
not common, as had been claimed. To show that it is not a creole, he reviews
three common definitions of a creole. Sri Lanka Malay does not have a plantation
history, or a ''simple'' grammar. Furthermore, it combines the 'old' lexicon with
the 'new' grammar and it has a mixed grammar. The author goes on to support this
mixed description of the grammar through an investigation of the case system. He
shows a number of elements of the case system that are due to Sinhala influence,
but none of his examples is particularly typologically unusual and the
similarities are very broad.

In the third chapter, Aurore Monod Becquelin, Emmanuel de Vienne and Raquel
Guirardello-Damian discuss the sociocultural implications for their
documentation project with the Trumai language of Brazil. The Trumai live on a
reserve in central Brazil that was created by Westerners in the mid-twentieth
century. Eco-tourists and other Westerners, such as anthropologists, have
exotocized the various Indian groups in the reserve, leading the Trumai and
other groups to commodify certain isolated aspects of their cultures, such as
language. Overt manifestation of ''traditional culture'', particularly language,
is also important for the Trumai to represent themselves as authentic Indians to
other Indian groups in the area. As such, some Trumai people are very interested
in language documentation, but they have a very different perspective than the
authors, who want to build an audio-visual archive. By taking an anthropological
approach to the question of language in culture, the authors offer a critique of
the notion of language documentation and suggest that researchers consider the
speakers' ways of approaching the issue.

The fourth chapter deals with Aweti, spoken in the same area of central Brazil
as Trumai. Sebastian Drude uses Aweti verbs to illustrate a Word-and-Paradigm
approach. Aweti has a split intransitive system that is also ergative in the
third person. Despite this potentially very interesting verbal system, the
primary aim of the paper seems to be promoting this approach, which classifies
each verb form along a number of language-specific functional and structural
categories, which are formally linked. An unfortunate side effect of this
approach is that morpheme-by-morpheme glossing is eschewed because the verb (and
presumably other words) can only acquire its full function-meaning pairing in
relation to the entire word.

In the next chapter, Arienne Dwyer discusses incipient tonogenesis (or at least
pitch accent) in the Mongolic language Southeastern Monguor. This language
originally had non-contrastive final stress, but as homophones begin to
proliferate for various historical reasons, Southeastern Monguor has innovated a
distinction between Low and High tone in final syllables. Although the tonal
contrasts of Northeast Chinese are not preserved in Southeastern Monguor loans,
the author believes that is through extensive contact with the tonal Northeast
Chinese that Monguor has developed tonal contrast. Currently, words receive a
default final High tone unless tone is needed to avoid potential homophony. In
such cases, one of the words in the segmentally homophonous pair will receive
final Low tone. All non-final tones are Low.

In the sixth chapter, Carlos Fausto, Bruna Franchetto, and Michael Heckenberger
return to the central Brazilian Upper Xingu sociocultural complex to which the
Aweti and the Trumai belong. This is a single cultural group comprised of
speakers representing four different language families: Arawak, Carib, Tupi, and
Trumai (isolate) and characterized by pacifism and ritual exchange. Each
ethnolinguistic group has its own unique identity, based largely on language,
but also on being the producers of a certain culturally valued object (the
Trumai, for example, were the producers of stone axes until modern tools made
that function obsolete). The authors review archaeological data which shows that
there were large villages connected by an impressive road system as early as the
ninth century. They then show how this archaeological record fits the present
ethnographic data, where various linguistic groups participate in an elaborate
system of exchange and shared rituals. The chapter, however, is mostly focused
on the ethnographic and archaeological records, and linguistic matters, such as
the nature of a genre of ritual songs that involve a mixture of various
languages, are largely glossed over.

In the seventh chapter, Jost Gippert discusses some preliminary findings of his
project documenting Svan, Tsova-Tush (Batsbi), and Udi, all endangered languages
spoken in Georgia. He begins by discussing some typologically interesting
aspects of the phonology and morphosyntax of each language, including split
ergative systems that are divided along different lines in each of the
languages. In the second part of the article, Gippert discusses the extent of
borrowing and code-switching in each article, based on audio recordings from his
own fieldwork. While Batsbi and Udi can be considered endangered based on the
most common criterion of whether children speak the language (see, e.g., Fishman
1991, Wurm 1998), Svan still has speakers of all ages. Based on transcripts of
his recordings, the author shows that there is pervasive borrowing and
code-switching in all three languages, and he thus categorizes all three as
endangered. His criteria are that speakers borrow discourse particles, borrow
fully-inflected verbs, and code-switch even in every-day conversations in the

While Gippert's examination of borrowing and code-switching to indicate
endangerment is interesting, the chapter is thematically scattered, and the work
on borrowing and code-switching would have benefited from a grounding in the
literature on obsolescence, in contrast to following two chapters, for example.

The next chapter continues with the themes of borrowing and attrition, as Lucia
A Bolluscio and Hebe Gonzalez examine Tapiete and Vilela, two endangered
languages from Argentina. Tapiete is the more vital of the two, spoken by people
as young as thirty. The authors investigate Spanish loans in Tapiete, looking at
their phonological and morphophonological properties in addition to their
frequency across genres and across speakers of different ages and linguistic
competencies. In the second half of the chapter, the authors turn to the
moribund language Vilela, for which they were only able to find two rememberers
(although the authors avoid this term). By using documentation from the 1970s
and by bringing the two speakers together, they were able to reactivate their
memories of the language, and the authors discuss the structural features of one
speaker's language before and after the reunion.

In the following chapter, K. David Harrison and Gregory D. S. Anderson
investigate Tofa, a moribund Turkic language from south-central Siberia. By
comparing historical records of the language to their recent fieldwork data, the
authors highlight a number of changes in the language, some of which they
attribute to attrition, and others of which they consider normal processes of
language change or contact-driven pressure that are not necessarily related to
the obsolescence of the language. For example, a change in the first person
singular imperative form to be more similar to other first person forms is
considered to be an internally motivated change, conflation of a rich set of
auxiliary verbs can mostly likely be ascribed to attrition, while widespread
code-switching with Russian is probably due to contact-induced change which
could occur even if the language were not endangered. Finally, the authors
emphasize that any given change could occur for several reasons and that
attributing a particular change to internal, contact, or obsolescence factors
may not be possible. Their overarching message is that we should not
automatically assume that any changes in a moribund language are due to
attrition. As we all know, healthy languages change too.

In the tenth chapter, Johannes Helmbrecht and Christian Lehmann look at verbal
morphology in Hocank (also known as Winnebago) [editor's note: the language is
spelled with a hacek over the c in the book], a Central Siouan language spoken
by 200 people, all over the age of fifty, in Wisconsin and Nebraska. Hocank has
both discontinuous roots and discontinuous affixes, so that a verb can have the
form: PronounA-Root1-PronounB-Root2. Such a verb form is not easily covered by
the use of common terms such as prefix, suffix, infix, circumfix, root, and
stem, and the authors add the term 'interfix', which inserts in the middle of a
stem, like an infix, but at a morphologically, rather than phonologically,
determined position, although this may be a historical morphological boundary
rather than a synchronic one. The authors then outline the synchronic template
of the Hocank verb, and finally, the various diachronic sources for
discontinuous verb roots, which come primarily from fossilized (outer) prefixes,
but also from lexicalized Noun-Verb or Verb-Verb compounds. The authors'
diachronic analysis is mainly one of internal reconstruction, and comparative
evidence from other Siouan languages is rather limited.

In the next chapter, Armik Mirzayan investigates same turn self-repair in
Wichita (Caddoan, Oklahoma). Although the language currently only has six
speakers, the author's study is based on a 1966 recording of a 28-minute
conversation between three women. The author begins by looking at the types of
self-repair initiation, finding that cutoff and lexical perturbation (such as
English um) are the most common, followed by syllable lengthening. The author
then looks at the phonetics of the cutoff environment and finally at the
morphosyntax, where it is found that when cutoff is followed by recycling,
speakers usually start again at the beginning of the whole complex word,
possibly adding a bound morpheme. Wichita is an extremely polysynthetic language
with noun incorporation and thus very long single-word verb complexes, and the
author assumes that repair in the middle of a complex word is not possible
because of strict ordering of bound morpheme and because of morphophonemic
fusion. Finally, it is found that, unlike in English, the Wichita speakers in
this conversation rarely go back any further than the beginning of the word.

In the final chapter, Thomas Widlok, Christian Rapold, and Gertie Hoymann look
at reciprocals, kinship terms, and interrogatives in 'Akhoe Haiom [editor's
note: the book's spelling of the language uses symbols unavailable for a
text-based review], a Khoisan language spoken in northern Namibia. The authors
argue that by using video in language documentation, we can gain a richer
understanding of the language and answer questions that we might not have been
able to answer with audio alone, even in domains where most linguists would
expect audio to suffice (i.e., not just questions about gesture and spatial
reference). By examining a short video clip where the authors interview a local
woman about her kinship relation with another woman, the authors show that
reciprocal kin terms are often avoided because they impose social obligation on
the other member of the dyad, that the interrogative mâ 'which, where', may only
mean 'which', and that kinship terms cannot be encapsulated by traditional
kinship diagrams.

As can be seen in the above summaries, presented in their order of appearance in
the volume, this work suffers from a lack of thematic cohesion. The Gippert;
Golluscio & Gonzalez; and Harrison & Anderson chapters deal with structural
properties of language attrition, and the Becquelin et al, Fausto et al, and
Widlok et al chapters take ethnographic approaches to language documentation,
but the other five papers deal with diverse topics: creoles, tonogenesis,
self-repair, and morphological theory. On the one hand, one must assume that a
major part of recent emergence of documentary linguistics is to gather new
empirical data that enhances the discipline of linguistics as a whole, and
therefore a volume like this is timely. As documentary linguists, we have an
imperative to present our newfound data, and these are some of the first results
from the new documentation projects.

On the other hand, one is left wondering about the intended audience for this
volume. If the authors are aiming their articles at others working on
tonogenesis or self-repair, for example, then perhaps there are better venues
for these papers. While the topic of language attrition certainly belongs in a
volume on endangered languages, and ethnographic approaches to linguistic
fieldwork are often subsumed under the banner of documentary linguistics (see
e.g., Gippert et al 2006), the other articles probably would receive wider
readership in different venues.

Given the current papers in the volume, however, the thematic cohesion could
have been improved by grouping the chapters, currently presented in alphabetical
order by author, into thematic units, such as the ones suggested above. More
cross-referencing among the articles would also have improved cohesion. There is
only a single internal citation (in the Golluscio & Gonzalez chapter), even
though there is a certain amount of overlap in the topics discussed, not just
along the thematic lines discussed above, but also along geographical lines.
Three of the chapters deal with languages all in contact with one another in
central Brazil (Becquelin et al, Drude, and Fausto et al), for example, but none
of these articles references any other.

Fishman, Joshua A. 1991. _Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical
foundations of assistance to threatened languages_. Avon, England: Multilingual
Matters Ltd.

Gippert, Jost, Nikolaus P. Himmelmann, and Ulrike Mosel (eds.). 2006.
_Essentials of language documentation_. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Wurm, Stephen A. 1998. Methods of language maintenance and revival, with
selected cases of language endangerment in the world. _Studies in endangered
languages_, ed. by Kazuto Matsumura, 191-211. Tokyo: Hituzi Syobo

Laura C. Robinson is a lecturer in the department of linguistics at Rice
University. Her interests are in language documentation, historical linguistics,
and Austronesian languages. Her dissertation was a grammar, vocabulary, and
texts of Dupaningan Agta, an endangered language of the northern Philippines.