(W)rite of passage

Last month (on 14th June) I gave a talk at the Tokyo University Linguistics Colloquium entitled “Current Trends in Language Documentation”; some of the ideas I discussed there can be found in a paper under the same name that I co-authored with Lenore Grenoble in the recently published Language Documentation and Description, Volume 4. In my talk I referred to and quoted a recent blog post that is an excellent discussion of what some language communities judge linguists to be useful for. The bottom line is: “Linguists are good for trust and love” – establishing and maintaining good human relationships over an extended period of time. Other things, like linguistic research, follow from that.


After my talk, I got into discussions with several of the 30 students who had attended. One of them had recently completed her MA at another university and was about to start a PhD at Tokyo. For her MA she had worked on aspects of a language spoken in the Pacific, undertaking fieldwork with her dissertation supervisor and later by herself. My ‘trust and love’ quote struck a chord with her since she had found that one of the most rewarding aspects of her postgraduate studies was the relationships she had been able to establish with the community of speakers during her fieldwork. However, now that she was a “grown up PhD student” she had been told she had to switch languages and to re-establish herself in her own field site. Why? Because her former supervisor was writing a ‘comprehensive grammar’ of the language she had worked on for her MA and so she had to find another language in another field site to write her own ‘comprehensive grammar’. No grammar, no proper linguist.
In my talk I had argued for the need for teamwork in language documentation and how ‘lone wolf linguists’ were in danger of becoming an endangered species. Writing a ‘comprehensive grammar’ of a language is a substantial undertaking, and in my view, best entered into when one has had the time and opportunity for extensive data collection and mature analysis and reflection. The Cambridge Grammar of English, which surely must rank as one of the first-rate ‘comprehensive grammars’ of any language was produced by an international team of specialist researchers overseen by three senior editors. Young and Morgan’s outstanding grammar of Navajo was the fruit of long-term collaboration between a linguist and a native speaker language teacher that took decades to produce. Bob Dixon’s recent The Jarawara Language of Southern Amazonia at 636 pages is a thoroughly comprehensive descriptive grammar that took him 12 years to write (with fieldwork spread over 11 years, not counting the mass of research previously done on the language by SIL linguist Alan Vogel). Other examples could be cited.
In the Endangered Languages Academic Programme at SOAS, our philosophy is that PhD students should not aim to write a grammar of a language for their dissertation, but rather gather documentary materials with the goal of describing one or two areas of the language structure and/or function in depth, accompanied by a sketch overview that helps readers make sense of the data presented in the depth analytical parts of the dissertation. We currently have 12 students working in this way, documenting and describing things such as the noun class system, or temporal reference, or spatial deixis, or mood and modality in their chosen language. If they wish to write a fuller more comprehensive grammatical account then this can ideally be done in a 3-year post-doctoral fellowship following the 4-year PhD research. That is, a ‘comprehensive grammar’ emerges from at least 7 years of data collection and analysis. It is not a rite of passage into the world of professional linguistics.
The alternative view that PhDs are about writing grammars seems to me to be rather odd, although it has been loudly promoted in some quarters, most vociferously by the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology at La Trobe University (whose recently advertised PhD scholarships are for “PhD candidates [who] generally undertake extensive fieldwork on a previously undescribed (or scarcely described) language and write a comprehensive grammar of it for their dissertation.”).
In the first half of the 20th century, linguistics and anthropology did aim for ‘the grammar’ or ‘the ethnography’ of a language group as a way to open the door to academia. No longer. Today, I wonder which other profession insists that would-be practitioners operate in this way – working alone on a strict time schedule to produce broad but thin overviews lacking in specialist depth. As Paul Newman and others have pointed out, it is true that grammar writing has been sidelined by mainstream linguistics and this unfortunate trend does need to be addressed (the recent volume by Ameka, Dench and Evans entitled Catching language: The standing challenge of grammar writing does raise its profile – I look forward to getting my hands on a copy when I have saved up the $US 132 the book costs). Whether this is best done by making it a requirement for the PhD is, I think, highly debateable.
In fact, in my opinion, making writing grammars a rite is not the right way to go.
Footnote
The student from Tokyo has now discussed these issues with her new PhD supervisors and they have decided she can work on aspects of the syntax of the language she wrote her MA on and that this won’t conflict with the grammar writing plans of her former supervisor. They will work as a team. Problem solved to everyone’s satisfaction.

3 thoughts on “(W)rite of passage”

  1. Great post, Peter.
    Do you think that the next generation of funding bodies will have long-term team-worked comprehensive grammars as their raison d’être?
    Given that the amount of documentation and data collection of endangered languages that funding bodies such as HRELP have enabled, surely the bar of what constitutes a ‘comprehensive’ grammar has now been raised (as you state).
    Maybe just as HRELP and VWF are a product of the emergence of a new paradigm in field linguistics, perhaps too we can hope for a new funding paradigm to support the new possibilites for long-term projects for comprehensive grammars.

  2. Thanks for the comments bulanjdjan – actually ELDP does fund post-docs on writing comprehensive grammars, like Birgit Hellwig’s work on Goemai (her PhD was on position verbs and contained a sketch grammar that she expanded during the post-doc into a fuller account – see http://www.hrelp.org/grants/projects/index.php?lang=21 ). As you say, with linguistics moving into a new phase now and with lots of documentary data starting to become available it may be time for ELDP and VWF to look at funding further team-based grammar writing as a new research phase. Pass the message along.
    Other funding agencies, like the AHRC and ESRC here in the UK, do fund grammar writing, and there is some interesting new work going on exploring Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis for collaborative authoring of reference materials – there was a nice workshop at MPI-EVA recently on this topic (see http://email.eva.mpg.de/~cysouw/meetings/wikifying.html ). I particularly enjoyed the talk by Sebastian Nordhoff about his GALOES system which is a wiki-based reference grammar of Sri Lankan Malay. The technology now makes it possible for multiple researchers to work together on more comprehensive grammars – see also http://home.medewerker.uva.nl/s.nordhoff/bestanden/Nap2006.pdf . All this further confirms to me that making the PhD the locus for such projects is not the best approach.

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