LINGUIST List 20.2245

Fri Jun 19 2009

Review: Language Documentation: Harrison, Rood & Dwyer (2008)

Editor for this issue: Randall Eggert <>

        1.    Laura Robinson, Lessons from Documented Endangered Languages

Message 1: Lessons from Documented Endangered Languages
Date: 19-Jun-2009
From: Laura Robinson <>
Subject: Lessons from Documented Endangered Languages
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Announced at
EDITORS: Harrison, K. David; Rood, David S.; Dwyer, Arienne M.TITLE: Lessons from Documented Endangered LanguagesSERIES: Typological Studies in Language 78PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2008

Laura C. Robinson, Department of Linguistics, Rice University

SUMMARYThis volume, edited by K. David Harrison, David S. Rood, and Arienne Dwyer, is acollection of eleven papers each presenting new data from an endangered languagethat was not previously well documented. The chapters cover languages from Northand South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia, each the result of separatelanguage 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 frompreviously poorly-known and endangered languages. They were asked to considerchallenges posed by these languages to current linguistic theories or models.Beyond that, they were asked to address social and ethical issues involved inthe process of documenting, and how these might in turn affect the involvedcommunities (whether of speakers, rememberers or scientists)'' (3). Given thisbroad aim, it is not clear that the volume has a single audience or that thevarious papers are related to one another in a coherent way, but these questionswill be addressed below after a brief summary of each chapter.

In the second chapter, Umberto Ansaldo attempts to show that Sri Lanka Malay isnot a Malay-Tamil creole, as has been previously claimed. He begins bydiscussing the language situation, and he tells us that he did fieldwork onKirinida Java, the only variety of Sri Lanka Malay that is not currentlyendangered. He goes on to counter two assumptions about the language: 1) thatits main non-Malay influence was Tamil, and 2) that it is a Creole. He showsthrough investigation of historical documents that Tamil-Malay intermarriage wasnot common, as had been claimed. To show that it is not a creole, he reviewsthree common definitions of a creole. Sri Lanka Malay does not have a plantationhistory, or a ''simple'' grammar. Furthermore, it combines the 'old' lexicon withthe 'new' grammar and it has a mixed grammar. The author goes on to support thismixed description of the grammar through an investigation of the case system. Heshows a number of elements of the case system that are due to Sinhala influence,but none of his examples is particularly typologically unusual and thesimilarities are very broad.

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

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

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

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

In the seventh chapter, Jost Gippert discusses some preliminary findings of hisproject documenting Svan, Tsova-Tush (Batsbi), and Udi, all endangered languagesspoken in Georgia. He begins by discussing some typologically interestingaspects of the phonology and morphosyntax of each language, including splitergative systems that are divided along different lines in each of thelanguages. In the second part of the article, Gippert discusses the extent ofborrowing and code-switching in each article, based on audio recordings from hisown fieldwork. While Batsbi and Udi can be considered endangered based on themost common criterion of whether children speak the language (see, e.g., Fishman1991, Wurm 1998), Svan still has speakers of all ages. Based on transcripts ofhis recordings, the author shows that there is pervasive borrowing andcode-switching in all three languages, and he thus categorizes all three asendangered. His criteria are that speakers borrow discourse particles, borrowfully-inflected verbs, and code-switch even in every-day conversations in thecommunity.

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

The next chapter continues with the themes of borrowing and attrition, as LuciaA Bolluscio and Hebe Gonzalez examine Tapiete and Vilela, two endangeredlanguages from Argentina. Tapiete is the more vital of the two, spoken by peopleas young as thirty. The authors investigate Spanish loans in Tapiete, looking attheir phonological and morphophonological properties in addition to theirfrequency across genres and across speakers of different ages and linguisticcompetencies. In the second half of the chapter, the authors turn to themoribund language Vilela, for which they were only able to find two rememberers(although the authors avoid this term). By using documentation from the 1970sand by bringing the two speakers together, they were able to reactivate theirmemories of the language, and the authors discuss the structural features of onespeaker's language before and after the reunion.

In the following chapter, K. David Harrison and Gregory D. S. Andersoninvestigate Tofa, a moribund Turkic language from south-central Siberia. Bycomparing historical records of the language to their recent fieldwork data, theauthors highlight a number of changes in the language, some of which theyattribute to attrition, and others of which they consider normal processes oflanguage change or contact-driven pressure that are not necessarily related tothe obsolescence of the language. For example, a change in the first personsingular imperative form to be more similar to other first person forms isconsidered to be an internally motivated change, conflation of a rich set ofauxiliary verbs can mostly likely be ascribed to attrition, while widespreadcode-switching with Russian is probably due to contact-induced change whichcould occur even if the language were not endangered. Finally, the authorsemphasize that any given change could occur for several reasons and thatattributing a particular change to internal, contact, or obsolescence factorsmay not be possible. Their overarching message is that we should notautomatically assume that any changes in a moribund language are due toattrition. As we all know, healthy languages change too.

In the tenth chapter, Johannes Helmbrecht and Christian Lehmann look at verbalmorphology in Hocank (also known as Winnebago) [editor's note: the language isspelled with a hacek over the c in the book], a Central Siouan language spokenby 200 people, all over the age of fifty, in Wisconsin and Nebraska. Hocank hasboth discontinuous roots and discontinuous affixes, so that a verb can have theform: PronounA-Root1-PronounB-Root2. Such a verb form is not easily covered bythe use of common terms such as prefix, suffix, infix, circumfix, root, andstem, and the authors add the term 'interfix', which inserts in the middle of astem, like an infix, but at a morphologically, rather than phonologically,determined position, although this may be a historical morphological boundaryrather than a synchronic one. The authors then outline the synchronic templateof the Hocank verb, and finally, the various diachronic sources fordiscontinuous 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 comparativeevidence from other Siouan languages is rather limited.

In the next chapter, Armik Mirzayan investigates same turn self-repair inWichita (Caddoan, Oklahoma). Although the language currently only has sixspeakers, the author's study is based on a 1966 recording of a 28-minuteconversation between three women. The author begins by looking at the types ofself-repair initiation, finding that cutoff and lexical perturbation (such asEnglish um) are the most common, followed by syllable lengthening. The authorthen looks at the phonetics of the cutoff environment and finally at themorphosyntax, 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 languagewith noun incorporation and thus very long single-word verb complexes, and theauthor assumes that repair in the middle of a complex word is not possiblebecause of strict ordering of bound morpheme and because of morphophonemicfusion. Finally, it is found that, unlike in English, the Wichita speakers inthis conversation rarely go back any further than the beginning of the word.

In the final chapter, Thomas Widlok, Christian Rapold, and Gertie Hoymann lookat reciprocals, kinship terms, and interrogatives in 'Akhoe Haiom [editor'snote: the book's spelling of the language uses symbols unavailable for atext-based review], a Khoisan language spoken in northern Namibia. The authorsargue that by using video in language documentation, we can gain a richerunderstanding of the language and answer questions that we might not have beenable to answer with audio alone, even in domains where most linguists wouldexpect audio to suffice (i.e., not just questions about gesture and spatialreference). By examining a short video clip where the authors interview a localwoman about her kinship relation with another woman, the authors show thatreciprocal kin terms are often avoided because they impose social obligation onthe other member of the dyad, that the interrogative mâ 'which, where', may onlymean 'which', and that kinship terms cannot be encapsulated by traditionalkinship diagrams.

EVALUATIONAs can be seen in the above summaries, presented in their order of appearance inthe volume, this work suffers from a lack of thematic cohesion. The Gippert;Golluscio & Gonzalez; and Harrison & Anderson chapters deal with structuralproperties of language attrition, and the Becquelin et al, Fausto et al, andWidlok 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 amajor part of recent emergence of documentary linguistics is to gather newempirical data that enhances the discipline of linguistics as a whole, andtherefore a volume like this is timely. As documentary linguists, we have animperative to present our newfound data, and these are some of the first resultsfrom the new documentation projects.

On the other hand, one is left wondering about the intended audience for thisvolume. If the authors are aiming their articles at others working ontonogenesis or self-repair, for example, then perhaps there are better venuesfor these papers. While the topic of language attrition certainly belongs in avolume on endangered languages, and ethnographic approaches to linguisticfieldwork are often subsumed under the banner of documentary linguistics (seee.g., Gippert et al 2006), the other articles probably would receive widerreadership in different venues.

Given the current papers in the volume, however, the thematic cohesion couldhave been improved by grouping the chapters, currently presented in alphabeticalorder by author, into thematic units, such as the ones suggested above. Morecross-referencing among the articles would also have improved cohesion. There isonly a single internal citation (in the Golluscio & Gonzalez chapter), eventhough there is a certain amount of overlap in the topics discussed, not justalong the thematic lines discussed above, but also along geographical lines.Three of the chapters deal with languages all in contact with one another incentral Brazil (Becquelin et al, Drude, and Fausto et al), for example, but noneof these articles references any other.

REFERENCESFishman, Joshua A. 1991. _Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empiricalfoundations of assistance to threatened languages_. Avon, England: MultilingualMatters 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, withselected cases of language endangerment in the world. _Studies in endangeredlanguages_, ed. by Kazuto Matsumura, 191-211. Tokyo: Hituzi Syobo

ABOUT THE REVIEWERLaura C. Robinson is a lecturer in the department of linguistics at RiceUniversity. Her interests are in language documentation, historical linguistics,and Austronesian languages. Her dissertation was a grammar, vocabulary, andtexts of Dupaningan Agta, an endangered language of the northern Philippines.