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Réunion Doculang Axe 4.1
Peter Austin (SOAS, London)
The activity of documenting languages has engaged linguists for some time, especially among the Boasians in North America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however a newly identified and named field called 'Language Documentation' (or 'Documentary Linguistics') only emerged around 20 years ago, with the goal of "compiling a representative and lasting multi-purpose record of a natural language or one of its varieties" (Himmelmann 1998; see also Woodbury 2003). Language documentation in this sense involves creating archivable audio, video and textual recordings of language use in its social and cultural context, and translating and annotating them, paying proper attention to relevant contextual metadata. This approach emphasises transparency and multi-functionality, arguing that the recordings and analysis should be available and accessible to a wide range of users for a wide range of functions, including community members. There is a growing theoretical and applied literature on language documentation.
In this talk, I will explore the development of Language Documentation over the last 20 years and argue that it has failed to live up to the ideals set out in the seminal work of Himmelmann and Woodbury in a number of ways and for a variety of reasons. In particular, the 'multi-purpose' aspects have been missing in the outcomes of a number of language documentation projects, especially in terms of interfaces, accessibility and the goal of "seeking to create as thorough a record as possible of the speech community for both posterity and language revitalization" (Wikipedia). I will argue that the relationship between documentation and revitalisation is a complex and troubled one, and that in the future work on both documentation and revitalisation needs to pay proper attention to local ethnographies and management of language use, issues of transdisciplinarity, metadocumentation, and the crucially important but poorly researched beliefs and ideologies about language and language use held by both speech communities and researchers (Austin and Sallabank 2014).