LINGUIST List 23.76

Wed Jan 04 2012

Review: Language Documentation; Socioling: Farfán & Ramallo (2010)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 04-Jan-2012
From: Benjamin Frey <>
Subject: New Perspectives on Endangered Languages
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at
EDITORS: Farfán, José Antonio Flores and Ramallo, Fernando F.TITLE: New Perspectives on Endangered LanguagesSUBTITLE: Bridging gaps between sociolinguistics, documentation and languagerevitalizationSERIES: Culture and Language Use 1PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2010

Benjamin E. Frey, Department of German, University of Wisconsin - Madison


“New Perspectives on Endangered Languages” collects the analyses of variousresearchers who have worked in endangered language communities, with a focus ondetermining the role of the researcher in relation to the goals of thecommunity. One primary question of the work concerns the intersection betweendocumentation, sociolinguistics, and language revitalization, and how thosefields should interact. A second core question of the work also addresses thedivide between community-oriented documentation and documentation orientedprimarily toward scientific description.

Within the past few decades there has been a shift in the mentality ofdocumentary linguists. Whereas formerly such researchers were concernedprimarily with preservation of languages and with generalizations which could bemade based on the data found in the languages, scholars are now are movingtoward a new philosophy of language documentation as a means to a different end. Increasingly, linguists have been using their research to serve the needs oflanguage revitalization programs within indigenous communities as well. Suchcooperation between researchers and local communities has proven mutuallybeneficial, as the language's preservation leads to interesting discoveries forthe researcher as well as avenues toward continuing the community's use of theheritage language and culture.

The editors' introduction, ''Exploring links between documentation,sociolinguistics and language revitalization: An introduction,'' frames thegeneral questions the volume seeks to address and outlines some potentialproblems, such as the omission of context from acquired data and the powerimbalance between researchers and so-called ''informants'' -- a term they note astelling, as it can be seen to index a person ''… conceived as a depositary ofdata meant to be extracted'' (2010:5). It introduces the distinction betweendocumentary linguistics for the purpose of acquiring data, which can yield''contaminated'' results, as the informant attempts to cooperate, and documentarylinguistics ''with revitalization in mind'' (2010:7).

Chapter one, ''The social life of a language: Will Manambu survive?'' by AlexandraAikhenvald, outlines the sociolinguistic situation of Manambu; one of theendangered languages of Papua New Guinea's Sepik river basin. Although TokPisin and New Guinea English are used fairly frequently in the community --whether as signs of power, means of lexical disambiguation, or ''shortcuts'' foraccessing cultural knowledge -- the return of socially prestigious older Manambuspeakers to their villages of origin is helping to secure Manambu's position asthe local language of spiritual and symbolic power. While other languages maybe spoken in Manambu-speaking villages, Manambu is experiencing revival in theform of a school program and enthusiastic leadership. Aikhenvald concludes thatbecause of Manambu's status as a carrier of spiritual and symbolic power, itsposition in the community is secure despite the enduring presence of Tok Pisinand New Guinea English. Manambu, she states is the language of the people towhom it 'belongs.'

Chapter two, by Nancy C. Dorian, is called ''The private and public indocumentation and revitalization.'' Although schools have been an effective wayto revitalize a language, they often initiate dilemmas as well. As a minority''home language'' begins to be spoken in a public setting, speakers outside thispublic setting can sometimes feel alienated. Because the school necessarilypromotes the development of a standard variety as well as the process of coiningnew words, speakers in other settings may begin to feel like outsiders. Dorianprovides insights into the nature of such schools as sites not only forrevitalization but also for possible leveling and koinéization, cautioning thata multi-tiered approach might work better for communities than an immersionschool alone. This perspective is valuable to consider, since although it maybe an enticing prospect to place all the community's eggs in one basket, so tospeak, there may be debate among older speakers about the nature and validity ofthe emerging sociolect such schools may produce.

In her discussion of team-based elicitation, Dorian broaches the issue ofinformed consent, as, although free conversation among groups promotes qualitydata, recording such communication can compromise the privacy of those who enterthe discussion unaware they are being recorded. The discussion continues withthe notion of language as an in-group right, as private individuals and localcommunities sometimes claim outsiders should not have access to the language, ormay not want linguists interfering in their situation. Dorian notes that it isnot necessarily the researcher’s advice to the community about how to proceedwith their language that sways community members, but rather the researcher’sinterest in the language and his/her attempt to learn it. The chapter stressesthe interplay between the goals and desires of the researcher and those of thecommunity, stating that ultimately, no effort by researchers will be adequate tosatisfy all who would utilize the research. Still, Dorian adds, this is noreason not to try.

Chapter three, ''Bridging linguistic research and linguistic documentation: TheKuikuro experience (Brazil)'' by Bruna Franchetto, is on Kuikuro, an Upper XinguCarib language in Brazil. It deals with a progression of attitudes betweenresearcher and community as they change from suspicion to a sort of ''adoption''of the researcher by the community, to the community finally taking control oftheir revitalization process. Stressing an outcome of community agency,Franchetto gives the example of certain younger members of the community whobecame documentary filmmakers and even linguists themselves, working in theirown interest to spread awareness about the language. The works produced bythese community members reveal interesting insights about the progression ofrelations between indigenous communities and mainstream societies in theirrespective countries, as in the case of Upper Xinguan peoples and the widerBrazilian community.

Chapter four, ''Language vitality and revitalization in the Arctic,'' by Lenore A.Grenoble, deals with Evenki, a Tungusic language in Siberia, and explores thepotential problems presented by variations in dialect and the discrepanciesbetween those dialects and a written standard. Although secondary educationexists for Evenki, texts are frequently produced in a standard developed in the1930s which does not accurately reflect spoken varieties. Texts were developedwith the intention of teaching first-language Evenki speakers, though studentstoday more commonly speak Russian as an L1. Grenoble recommends that to worktowards resolving such issues in education and revitalization, the role of thelinguist should be that of a facilitator and collaborator, working with thecommunity's knowledge and providing knowledge of the field of linguistics andthe nature of language shift.

In the fifth chapter, ''The demise and attempted revival of Uchumataqu (Uru):Values and actors,'' Pieter Muysken adopts an actor-centered approach to addressthe changes in value that led to the demise of Uchumataqu, an Uru language ofthe Bolivian altiplano. The primary question of the chapter is the subjectivenature of values, and how the value that individuals or organizations place onlanguages differs depending on the actor. He analyzes the decline of Uchumataquin terms of urban migration, economic and socio-cultural restructuring,population decrease, exogamy, and ecology. Importantly, Muysken points out thenature of community dynamics as an influential force in the process of languageshift.

Chapter six, ''Linguistic vitality in the Awetí indigenous community: A casestudy from the Upper Xingu multilingual area,'' by Sabine Reiter, details thesituation of Awetí, a Tupian language spoken in the Upper Xingu multilingualarea of Central Brazil. One stabilizing factor for Awetí seems to be thepreservation of traditional sociolinguistic norms within village life whichdemand that children raised in households where each parent comes from adifferent ethnic group be raised bilingually. The preservation of this norm hascontributed to furthering a multilingual environment, even after the recentsplit of an Awetí village into two. While recent interest in mainstream mediahas sparked some desire to learn about Brazilian national culture and acquirePortuguese, this tendency may be combated by interest in Awetí sparked byReiter's documentation project itself.

Ramallo & Farfán's summary, ''Linking three agendas: Opening a debate anddirections for the future,'' argues that documentary linguistics is onlybeginning to benefit from the tools and methods of sociolinguistics, a fieldwhich could provide solid grounding in helping to empower communities torevitalize their languages. Although documentary linguists may seek to recordlanguages to preserve linguistic diversity, sociolinguistics provides tools forcommunities to utilize documentary records as a means to the end ofrevitalization, bridging the gap between documentary linguists and localcommunities.


The volume presents a progressive view of language documentation and work withendangered language communities, endeavoring to challenge and inform the readerabout potential issues and benefits to be encountered by linguists as well ascommunity members. In several of the chapters we gain a glimpse into thedevelopment of relationships between researchers and indigenous communities.Over time, these relationships shift from a shared notion of ''otherness'' intomore of a relationship between equals. Accordingly, the volume emphasizes theposition of the researcher not as some kind of 'savior' coming from the ivorytower to help rescue languages from certain extinction, but as an individualcoming to work with the community to determine what happens to their language.

The potential benefit of this volume is in informing would-be documentarylinguists about the experiences of researchers who have been in the field, andin offering a new perspective about the values and goals that can be associatedwith the work of documentation. Although documentation as a practice couldcertainly be beneficial for the larger scientific community, it is important toconsider how the acquisition of such knowledge interacts with the goals,attitudes, and customs of those people who possess it.

The authors have achieved their goals with this book insofar as it presentsseveral new perspectives on endangered languages. It outlines potentialproblems that researchers can run into in doing work with indigenous communitiesand provides information about the kinds of solutions to be found in doing suchwork. The volume will prove particularly valuable for linguists preparing to dofieldwork and/or participate in language revitalization projects in indigenouscommunities. Some researchers who have already been active in the field oflanguage documentation and revitalization may also be interested in theexperiences of peers and colleagues as each situation is unique and requiresinnovative solutions. Another potential audience for this work would be membersof indigenous communities who are endeavoring to work with linguists indocumenting and/or revitalizing their language, as reading about the experiencesof researchers in other communities may give community members an idea of whatto expect when working with linguists and the challenges both groups may face.

This book fits well with other works that deal with indigenous communities, asit attempts to emphasize the agency of such communities and the interplaybetween researchers and indigenous people as equals. Works such as DevonMihesuah's “So You Want to Write About American Indians?: A Guide for Writers,Students and Scholars” and Linda Tuhiwai Smith's “Decolonizing Methodologies:Research and Indigenous Peoples” provide similar views regarding the sensitivitynecessary in doing collaborative work between academics and indigenous people.Such works provide valuable insight on ways in which researchers and communitiescan work together successfully.

The volume weaves together several stories of researchers' experiences incommunities engaged in an effort to revitalize their languages. Each of thedescriptions presents a problem and various solutions being employed by thecommunity and/or by the researcher. While common themes arise, each communityhas different needs and manages to meet them in different ways. As such, thework coheres nicely by displaying the variety of possible experiences inrevitalization and documentation.

Future research on the topic could follow up on individual programs presented inthis work, or possibly examine the progress made by other groups seeking torevitalize their language. One possible avenue for exploration would be on thepotential contributions of media, as is touched on briefly in chapter 3. Giventhe availability of new social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,future research could pursue the extent to which such media is being used inlanguage documentation and revitalization.


Mihesuah, Devon. 2005. So You Want to Write About American Indians?: A Guide forWriters, Students, and Scholars. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and IndigenousPeoples. London: Zed Books.


Ben Frey is a PhD student in the Department of German at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. His dissertation tests and develops the 'Great Change' model of language shift to English, including a case study of two minority language groups in the United States -- Wisconsin German and North Carolina Cherokee.

Page Updated: 04-Jan-2012