Keynote Speaker (2018): Gary Holton


Language Documentation: What Is It and What Is It Good for?


Language Documentation: What is it, and what is it good for?

 What does is mean to “know” a language? At the very least speakers must know a few thousand words and some grammatical rules for putting those words together into meaningful utterances. But is that all? Surely linguistic knowledge consists of more than lexicon and grammar. Even speakers with limited fluency are able to recognize humor, emotion, and levels of politeness that may be opaque to those whose knowledge of the language is derived from dictionaries and grammar books. Speakers’ linguistic knowledge may even influence their non-linguistic behavior, for example the choice to express directions as left and right as opposed to west and east. In this way Language Documentation provides a window on the world, revealing the diversity of human experience.

But this diversity is currently under threat: more than half of the world’s languages are endangered, and most of the remainder are vulnerable, as speakers shift to languages of wider communication such as English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and other world languages. The field of Language Documentation seeks to record this diversity by creating an enduring record of the “linguistic practices and traditions” of the world’s endangered language communities (Himmelmann 1998). Because language is inextricably tied to cultural practice, language documentation is an inherently interdisciplinary enterprise, cutting across fields as diverse as anthropology, biology, history, astronomy, mathematics, and geography (Holton, to appear). Moreover, language documentation is inseparable from Language Conservation, which seeks to reverse the process of language shift.

In this presentation we review the history of Language Documentation, from the early days of 20th century American linguistics to its reemergence over the past two decades as a distinct subfield, with its own methodologies and research practices. We contrast Language Documentation with more traditional descriptive approaches, noting the theoretical and practical advantages of the documentary approach. Drawing on examples from Indonesia, the Pacific, and Alaska, we argue that language documentation—and the archival record it creates—has great and largely untapped potential to benefit not just the field of linguistics but many other fields as well.

Gary Holton’s bio:

Dr. Holton currently works as a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. He serves as Co-director of the Bio-cultural Initiative of the Pacific and is the Director of Catalogue of Endangered Languages. He firmly served as an Affiliate at the Center of Excellence in the Dynamics of Language at the Australian National University and Affiliate Professor for the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Dr. Holton started his academic career earning his B.S. in Mathematics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and his M.S. in Mathematics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His Ph.D is from the School of Linguistics from the University of California in Santa Barbara.

As a documentary linguist his work focuses on the documentation and description of indigenous languages, especially the Dene (Athabascan) languages of Alaska and the non-Austronesian (Papuan) languages of eastern Indonesia. Most of these languages are in danger of disappearing, and their systematic documentation preserves endangered knowledge systems while also contributing to an understanding of the way human languages are structured.