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At the Crossroads of Linguistics and Anthropology

Monday, 27 April 2015

Disciplinary Perspectives on Language Documentation

Dobrin conducting fieldwork in Papua New Guinea

Dobrin conducting fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. Photo courtesy Lise Dobrin

For a long time in anthropology, the documentation of languages on the brink of disappearing was negatively tainted as salvage: quaint in its Boasian particularism, inappropriately objectifying speakers as passive vehicles of an authoritatively rendered tradition, naïve in uncritically adopting the folk category of language as an analytic one, and irrelevant to a discipline that is concerned with linguistic practices and ideologies primarily as a form of evidence for claims about other areas of social life.

But over the past couple of decades, a major transition has taken place in linguistics with the emergence of the language documentation research paradigm, which is motivated by the prevalence of language shift around the world. While language documentation and description have long played second fiddle to theory-building in linguistics, many linguists are now recording texts, compiling dictionaries, devising orthographies, and describing grammatical systems. They are doing this not only to serve the goals of linguistic analysis and theorizing, but also to preserve primary linguistic and cultural material for heritage communities and future researchers of all kinds.

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