LSA 309: Language documentation for cross-linguistic comparison

Stephen C. Levinson | six-week course | MW 8:30 – 10:15 (no auditors)

This course introduces the process of language documentation in the context of cross-linguistic comparion: What do we need to record and investigate in order to produce the information that we and later generations may need, not only for the needs of the community, but also for the purposes of linguistic theory building? Language documentation used to be thought of as simply a matter of grammar and text collection, which fed traditional morpho-syntactic typology. The Volkswagen Foundation's Documentation of Endangered Languages inititative has raised the stakes considerably, requiring multi-media records with time-aligned transcription, as a way of capturing endangered languages for posterity. But what exactly should be recorded and how? And how to capture the most elusive aspect of language — the meanings in their cultural context?

This course argues that data collection is usefully pushed by the latest theory and methods to probe structures, meanings, and domains which would otherwise not be properly surveyed. We'll explore, for example, how to use conversational data as a spring board for detailed elicitation about language structure and semantics, as well as language use. We'll also explore the use of stimulus-driven elicitation methods to discover the semantic coding of various domains, from colour to kinship, taste to space. These methods facilitate comparison, and by keeping a constant eye on cross-linguistic contrasts, the data collected can be very significantly enriched. In addition, theoretical perspectives from other disciplines as diverse as psychology, geography, biology, anthropology and sociology can drive us to ask questions we wouldn't otherwise have formulated.

We'll use one particular language, Yélî Dnye, a language isolate from Papua New Guinea, to illustrate the possibilities. A native speaker (US immigration permitting) will help us make discoveries in the classroom, and allow follow-up project work as one means of earning course credit (a variety of course credit options will be available).

Students should come away with some understanding of (i) the technicalities of multi-media archiving and documentation as used by the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, (ii) how to push the boundaries of one's understanding of an unfamiliar language in its cultural context, (iii) systematic methods for gathering data that can be used for cross-linguistic comparison, especially in semantics, (iv) the excitement of discovery, live in the classroom, of new facts about an underdescribed language.

Note: Enrollment limited to 15 students (no affiliates).

Reading: Selected materials available online.

On reserve at Graduate Services, 208 Doe Library: J. Gippert, N. Himmelmann, and U. Mosel, Essentials of linguistic documentation, K. Harrison, D. Rood, and A. Dwyer, Lessons from documented endangered languages, and P. Austin (ed.), Language documentation and description. Vol 1-5.

Areas of linguistics: Fieldwork and language documentation; Syntax, semantics, and morphology

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