Issues in the documentation of newer language varieties

Jonathan Schlossberg recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Linguistics in the Pub on Wednesday 29th of October, 2014 centred around the theme: Issues in the documentation of newer varieties. Felicity Meakins (University of Queensland) led the discussion. The announcement and short background reading are here.

This session marked the 5th anniversary of Linguistics in the Pub. Organiser Ruth Singer would like to extend a thank you very much to all participants, including ‘retired’ co-organiser Lauren Gawne. Lauren’s gap has been partly filled by the Monash PhD students coalition: Harriet Shepard, Jonathon Lum, Alan Ray and Jonathan Schlossberg (University of Newcastle) will be co-organising when they are not in the field. Interstate/international visitors – don’t forget let me know when you’re coming to Melbourne so we can have you along too!

In the past few years, there have been several studies on the emergence of newer language varieties, particularly within the Australian context. Some of these studies have even captured the imagination of the popular media (e.g. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/18/australia-mixed-language-light-warlpiri-discovered_n_3458836.html). However, documenting new varieties may be fraught with practical and ethical issues in addition to those which normally apply when engaging in language documentation.

Felicity Meakins pointed out that new linguistic varieties emerge with new generations. This raises problems, as youth speech is generally stigmatised by older generations. Communities are often uninterested in – if not downright hostile towards – the idea of documenting youth speech. It may be the case that in the eyes of the community, documenting youth varieties is seen as conferring a sort of legitimacy to them, which the community believes is unwarranted. This is especially understandable within an Australian context, where the embracing of a new language variety may come at the expense of the traditional language. So how does one go about documenting a variety considered non-standard?

In addition to community approval, there are other practical problems with gaining access to youth speech. One linguist pointed out that opting to work with younger people violates cultural norms, as elders are considered the keepers of cultural and linguistic knowledge. In addition, when recording speakers, the observer effect may come into play, as the stigma of the new variety in combination with the presence of an outsider may cause people to switch to a more standard variety. Also, it may be problematic to record in some places where youths normally congregate, such as schools, because these locations are associated with using a standard variety. For this reason, one linguist who works with young people said that she prefers to record at home. Another linguist reported some success with leaving the recorder at the scene and observing from a distance, to minimise the effect of the observer’s paradox. Despite these problems, another linguist reported that elders at the Indigenous Australian community where they worked, did approve of younger community members working with linguists, as it was perceived that this work “kept them out of trouble”.

In terms of documentation methodology, Felicity Meakins pointed out that not all traditional elicitation practices are as successful when working with new linguistic varieties. While elicitation of narratives is standard documentary practice, it can be the case that narratives are not associated with the new way of speaking. Additionally, while older speakers are often quite comfortable rattling off a story off the top of their heads, younger speakers may struggle when put on the spot in this way. For this reason, fieldworkers might find more success with structured tasks such as a picture-matching game or with using narrative-elicitation aides like the Frog Story (Bamberg 1985; 1987) or Pear Story (http://www.pearstories.org).

However, attitudes in the speech community are not the only obstacle to documenting newer linguistic varieties. It was noted that often (contact-influenced) language change in minority languages are depicted by the linguist as a case of the language “unravelling” (e.g. Schmidt 1985 on Dyirbal). It was noted that there is often a failure for linguists engaged in language documentation to apply the same sorts of Labovian-style sociolinguistic methodologies enjoyed by majority languages. Innovations are often described as a language undergoing “simplification” when in reality this need not be the case. For example, while traditional Gurindji consistently displays ergativity, in Gurindji Kriol ergativity is optional in many situations which means speakers have to learn when and when not to employ it, presumably a more complex cognitive task. It is therefore important for documentarians to remember that “mistakes” are likely systematic changes in progress. Though one may regret the influence of European languages on minority indigenous languages, it is necessary for language description to be impartial, and remain separate from advocacy efforts.

It is worth noting however, that it is not necessarily the case that emerging varieties are stigmatised. Speakers of Australian Kriol (Roper River Kriol) in Ngukurr, Northern Territory are proud of their new language and that the community is content to promote it and for outsiders to observe it. This contrasts with the experience of most other linguists working in Australian Indigenous communities, for whom use of Kriol was not accepted by the community. In some communities, even Indigenous outsiders are discouraged from using the local Kriol. It was suggested that Ngukurr people’s positive attitude may stem from the positive attention Roper Kriol has received from linguists and the media in the past. Ngukurr is known as the birthplace of Roper Kriol and the community is quite proud of this fact.

Given the effect linguists have had on the language ecology of Ngukurr, it is important to be mindful of how documenting a language can interfere with the language ecology of a community. Another example is the terms, ‘Gurindji Kriol’ and ‘Light Warlpiri’ which are exonyms coined by linguists, but this terminology has been adopted by the respective communities. Furthermore, one cannot enter a community with preconceived notions of what is acceptable and how best to behave. As always with fieldwork, one has to adapt to the desires and needs of the community one is working with.

This LIP celebrated the meeting’s fifth anniversary and was also the final LIP of the year due to a proliferation of conferences and end of year social functions Nov-Dec. We look forward to discussing more linguistics and drinking more beer with you in 2015!

Bamberg, M. (1985). Form and function in the construction of narratives: Developmental perspectives. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

Bamberg, M. (1987). The acquisition of narratives: Learning to use language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Schmidt, Annette. 1985. Young People’s Dyirbal: an example of language death from Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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