Phoenix or Relic? Documentation of Languages with Revitalization in Mind

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ISSN: 1934-5275

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Amery, Rob
language revitalization, speech formula, Australia, Yolngu, Pintupi, Kaurna
article description
The description of Indigenous languages has typically focussed on structural properties of languages (phonology, morphology, and syntax). Comparatively little attention has been given to the documentation of language functions or the most commonly occurring speech formulas. Speech formulas are often culturally-specific and idiomatic and cannot be reliably reconstituted from a knowledge of grammar and lexicon alone. Many linguists and lexicographers seem to have an implicit relic view of language, as if they have been trying to capture the “pure” language uncontaminated by language and culture contact. Accordingly, borrowed terms and neologisms are typically omitted or underrepresented in dictionaries. Recorded texts have tended to be myths or texts about traditional culture. Conversations and texts about everyday life, especially in non-traditional contexts, are ignored. How can we ensure that language descriptions are maximally useful, not only to linguists, but to the people most closely associated with the languages, who may wish to revive them? Considerable time is needed to produce a maximally useful description of a language and its uses. Suggestions made here emerge from first-hand experience working with Yolngu and Pintupi people in non-traditional domains, as well as from attempts to re-introduce Kaurna on the basis of nineteenth-century documentation.

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