Documentary linguistics

Last week, a group of learners of the Kiksht language from the Warm Springs Confederated Tribes, in the state of Oregon, digged up a treasure in the form of language records. Hundreds of pages of documents on their language had been stored at the Smithsonian Institution by several researchers that had worked on the language (more on this story). It was received as a vital boost towards the community’s efforts to keep the knowledge of spoken Kiksht after the death of its last native speaker in 2012. Any of us will remember a number of similar cases in which a community of heritage speakers (or linguistics researchers) rely on language materials kept by chance. But, what if these documents weren’t a secret stash that had luckily been kept safe, but a set of language materials collected with the specific purpose of representing a language once it vanished? Enter the documentary linguist.

Some vintage linguistic documentation. Photo from the Recovering Voices project:

Recently I have become better acquainted with a sub-field of linguistics that is often not perceived as such. Over the past decade, documentary linguistics has developed enormously and has reached a high level of self-awareness as a delimited branch of its own within the big Linguistics tree. Defining language documentation is in itself a controversial issue. A core notion of documentary linguistics that is arguably accepted by consensus is “the making and keeping of records of the world’s languages and their patterns of use” (Woodbury 2003), to which an aspect of access and dissemination is usually added.

Documentary linguistics is like the offspring of descriptive linguistics and historical linguistics, with a special connection to endangered languages. Back in the day, when I was involved in a research project on clause structure in 12th-13th century Old French, the classic paradox of historical linguistics was painfully present: absence of an element X in the available documentation doesn’t mean that it was not an element of the spoken language. You can’t just go find a speaker of that language and ask them questions, record their voice in hi-res audio quality, or look at the way they gesture with their hands as they say certain types of phrases. Which means that our knowledge of that language (variety) is limited to the documentation that we have. Everything else? Gone. Forever. What documentary linguistics sets out to do is to get a head start on language death and make a linguistic record of a language that avoids as much as possible the Old French or Kiksht situation. This will usually expand to cultural manifestations that might not be strictly linguistic, but that still are an important part of the culture associated with a specific language community. A no less important aspect is the guarantee that the data will be preserved and accessible decades and even centuries in the future: you can’t just dump recordings and text files in a hard drive and leave them there forever.

Documentation of the Kotiria language (Brazil). Photo from ELDP:

There are several institutions that document and store massive linguistic data. To mention just a few, there’s the ELDP and ELAR in London, the ELF in Connecticut, AILLA in Austin (TX), LELA in Leipzig and PRODOCLIN in Rio de Janeiro.

Not all linguists view documentary linguistics in the same light. Endangered language archives have been called by some “data graveyards”, which once again brings up the issue of access to the data. There are voices that consider that those efforts would be better spent in other directions, as you can see in a talk that Paul Newman (Indiana University) gave on this issue.

Regardless of anyone’s take on it, documentary linguistics has been around and kicking for some time, and all signs say it’s here to stay.


Woodbury, Tony. 2003. Defining documentary linguistics. In P. Austin (ed.) Language documentation and description, Vol. 1, 35-51. London: SOAS.


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