In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language Documentation

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies and Collections
  • Conference and Workshop Proceedings
  • Journals
  • Archiving
  • Mobilization and Revitalization
  • Training

Linguistics Language Documentation
Peter Austin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0075


Language documentation, also known as documentary linguistics, is the subfield of linguistics that deals with creating multipurpose records of languages through audio and video recording of speakers and signers and with annotation, translation, preservation, and distribution of the resulting materials. It shows by its nature multidisciplinarity and draws on theoretical concepts and methods from linguistics, ethnography, folklore studies, psychology, information and library science, archiving and museum studies, digital humanities, media and recording arts, pedagogy, ethics, and other research areas. Its major goal is the creation of well-organized, long-lasting corpora that can be used for a variety of purposes, including theoretical research and practical needs such as language and cultural revitalization (see Mobilization and Revitalization). Another prominent feature is attention to the rights and desires of language speakers and communities and collaboration with them (see Speakers and Collaboration) in the recording, analysis, archiving, dissemination, and support of their own languages. The term “language documentation” historically has been used in linguistics to refer to the creation of grammars, dictionaries, and text collections for previously undescribed languages; however, works defining language documentation as a distinct subfield of linguistics emerged around 1995 as a response to the crisis facing the world’s endangered languages, about half of which could disappear in the 21st century, and the urgent need to record and analyze languages and speakers’ linguistic knowledge while they continue to be spoken, and to work with communities on supporting threatened languages before opportunities to do so become reduced. It was also prompted by developments in information, media, communication, and archiving technologies, which make possible the collection, analysis, preservation, and dissemination of documentary records in ways that were not feasible previously. It was also facilitated by high levels of research funding support from three main sources: the Documentation of Endangered Languages (DOBES) program sponsored by Volkswagen Foundation in Germany (2000–2013), the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) supported by Arcadia Trust in the United Kingdom (2002–2016), and the Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) interagency initiative of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Endowment of the Humanities (2005–). Language documentation concerns itself with principles and Methods for the recording and analysis of primary language and cultural materials, and Metadata about them, in ways that are transparent and accountable, and that can be archived and disseminated for current and future generations to use. Some researchers have emphasized standardization of data and analysis and “best practices,” while others have argued for a diversity of approaches that recognize the unique and particular social, cultural, and linguistic contexts within which individual languages are used. Methods and practices for training in language documentation have also been explored.

Reference Works

Because the development of language documentation as a separate subfield of linguistics is relatively new, there are only a few reference works that deal with theoretical and practical issues. Gippert, et al. 2006 covers definitional concepts and the practicalities of data collection, analysis, and archiving. Many of the authors are researchers associated with the Documentation of Endangered Languages (DOBES) program funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. Chapters vary in complexity, but most will be useful for beginning researchers. Gippert, et al. 2006 is critically reviewed in Evans 2008, which argues that the approach it takes, which excludes grammar writing, is detrimental to the field. Austin 2010 publishes a series of lectures from the 3L Summer School 2009 and is aimed at beginning students. Grenoble and Furbee 2010 originated in discussions at a series of meetings of concerned researchers in 2004–2006 and a conference at Harvard University in 2005. It addresses praxis and values in documentation, measures of documentary adequacy, technologies, collaboration models, and training needs. Its audience is more advanced practitioners. Austin and Sallabank 2011 deals with a wide range of endangered languages issues and is intended for students; Part 2 and Part 4 of the book have seven chapters on language documentation. The edited working papers series Language Documentation and Description, published since 2003 by the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), contains articles on language documentation theory and practice, mostly arising from workshops organized by the project.

  • Austin, Peter K., ed. 2010. Lectures in language documentation and description. Language Documentation and Description 7. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, Univ. of London.

    Contains chapters on documentation issues and methods, archiving, audio recording, sign languages, ethics, language policy, typology, linguistic theory, and applying for a research grant.

  • Austin, Peter K., and Julia Sallabank, eds. 2011. The Cambridge handbook of endangered languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511975981

    Contains chapters on defining documentation, the roles of speakers, data types and structures, archiving, and digital archiving, as well as training and project management.

  • Evans, Nicholas. 2008. “Review of Essentials of Language Documentation.” Language Documentation and Conservation 2:340–350.

    A critical review arguing for more attention to grammar writing within language documentation.

  • Gippert, Jost, Nikolaus P. Himmelmann, and Ulrike Mosel, eds. 2006. Essentials of language documentation. Trends in Linguistics, Studies and Monographs 178. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110197730

    An essential reference for principles and practices in documentation, highly influenced by the models developed in the DOBES program. A Spanish translation has been published as Bases de la documentación lingüística, edited by John B. Haviland and José Antonio Flores Farfán (Mexico City: INALI, 2007).

  • Grenoble, Lenore A., and N. Louanna Furbee, eds. 2010. Language documentation: Practice and values. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    A collection of position papers and case studies on practices and values, measures of adequacy, technology, collaboration, and training.

  • Language Documentation and Description. 2003–2012. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, Univ. of London.

    Annual or semiannual volumes of peer-reviewed articles on language documentation (edited by Peter K. Austin and guest editors), mostly arising from workshops held at SOAS. Further information and purchase details may be found at the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project website.

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