[Peter K. Austin, Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS, reporting on a joint poster presentation with Lise Dobrin (University of Virginia) and David Nathan (SOAS) at the 2008 LSA annual meeting]
They came. They saw. They chuckled. Some snickered, and a few laughed out loud. A couple even went “what the…?”
Such was the range of reactions to the poster which Lise Dobrin (University of Virginia), David Nathan (SOAS) and I presented at last week’s Linguistic Society of America annual meeting in Chicago dealing with the topic of commodification of endangered languages, ie. their reduction to things to be counted and standardised, and their treatment as if they were a tradeable commodity.
At David’s suggestion we decided to adopt a satirical approach using the metaphor of a newspaper front page to deal with what is, of course, a very serious topic. It was the only (deliberately) funny poster at the LSA this year, and probably ever. Ten points to avid readers who get all the allusions and jokes. View thumbnail of image or full size poster here.
We had a stream of poster viewers during the 9am-10:30am session when it was up on display and we talked to around 50 people about the issues we wanted to highlight. Reactions were generally positive to our somewhat challenging message.
So what are we trying to say? Basically, we argue that the emotive and moralistic slogans floating round the endangered languages world like: “a language dies every two weeks – what are we going to do about it?” (Dalby 2002) and “without linguistic diversity it would be impossible for us to perform the central task of linguistic science, ie. developing a realistic theory of language competence” (Hale 1998) have been remarkably effective in establishing a new disciplinary take on linguistics. The result is an approach where attention is paid to the preservation of linguistic knowledge being lost, and where the need to engage the wider world in confronting this loss is recognized (see also my post last year). Large research funders have emerged (e.g. NSF, Volkswagen, Rausing), and student interest has been raised. But the responses from the academic linguistics community have in that very process reduced languages to indices, bounded objects, technical encodings, and exchangeable goods.
We argue that this comes from the forces of standardization and audit that shape the management of information in contemporary Western culture, especially academic culture with its focus on outputs and counting (e.g. publication counts like the UK RAE and Australian RQF, citation indices, research impact statements etc). It also results from a theoretical and methodological vacuum that has been filled not by linguists but by preservationists, archives and technologists.
- Languages as indices – language vitality indicators (e.g. UNESCO’s 9 criteria with 6 scoring levels) objectify languages and turn them into numbers: the vitality of an individual language can be quantified, and languages ranked according to degree of endangerment. UNESCO presents a deterministic relationship between its 9 factors and the vitality and function of languages: “taken together, these nine factors can determine the viability of a language, its function in society and the type of measures required for its maintenance or revitalization”
- Languages as bounded objects – selections of phenomena are crystallised into a singular ‘language’, which is placed within boundaries, on maps etc.
- Languages as technical encodings (what David Nathan has elsewhere called ‘archivism’) – quantifiable properties (recording hours, data volume, file parameters) and technical desiderata (‘archival quality’, ‘portability’, standard ontologies) serve as reference points in assessing the aims and goals of documentation. One of the results of this we have seen is a tendency towards formulaic grant applications, e.g. “my project will result in 100 hours of 16 bit 44.1MHz audio, 25 hours MPEG-2 video, 10% ELAN .eaf files”. These eclipse discussion of documentation methods. As a further example, in grant applications and our training courses at SOAS, we see researchers saying they will do video recording, however they include this in their projects apparently because “you gotta do video”, without properly discussing the goals, methodology or hypotheses that the video is supposed to be the means to addressing. As another example, audio compression (eg. from wav to mp3) is often deprecated in the absence of understanding how to make good recordings, including the much more important issue of microphone selection and use. Also, few EL researchers have well worked out corpus structure plans.
- Languages as exchangeable goods – in things like the mission statement and publicity produced by the Open Language Archives Community the stated research goal is for languages to be ‘preserved’ as ‘resources‘ that ‘consumers’ (linguists and others) discover and access via ‘service providers’. We also see linguist’s professional obligations to speaker communities getting formulated in grant applications and elsewhere in terms of transacted objects (eg. language primers, CDs, or books that the linguist ‘gives back’ to the speaker community in ‘exchange‘ or ‘payback’ for their ‘work’ with the linguist) rather than in terms of knowledge sharing, joint engagement in language maintenance activities, or other interactionally-defined achievements. As another example, some granting agencies require an applicant’s bona fides to be distilled into a ‘letter of support’ from ‘an appropriate representative of the language community’ thus turning a complex of social and political dynamics into an object that is used to legitimise the research. We see this even for ‘pilot project’ grant applications which are intended to be exploratory where the linguist might not even have established connections with the community yet.
So, what’s the bottom line? We feel that the moral and emotional power of the endangerment discourse has not been matched by conceptual guidance on how linguistics and linguists can respond. Publications about effective and appropriate documentary methodologies for linguists have been slow to develop. Many unanswered questions remain, e.g. (1) are the goals of documentary linguistics social or formal? (2) are its data symbolic, or digital recordings of events? (see here for some discussion of ‘data’ versus ‘research’) (3) what role(s) should archives play? (4) how could we decide between competing interests? We lack a framework for assessing quality, value, effectiveness and progress of our work – so documentary linguists fall back on quantifiable indices, using the audit tools that their academic culture brings to hand, and technical standards that archivists and technologists have been only too happy to develop (Peter blogged about a proposal for an ‘accounting function of analysis’ to measure how complete a documentation was that was put forward at last year’s LSA – thankfully the paper proposing this has disappeared from the landscape).
We believe that linguists and other researchers should confront this issue and recognise that commodification derives from bureaucratic and technological forces in Euro-American culture that we should not take for granted in our response to language endangerment. We need to develop a new approach to language documentation that implements the moral and ethical vision that has attracted new participants and funders. This will include replacing the rhetoric that documentation is a separate discipline from descriptive linguistics (as in Himmelmann 1998, for example) with a better understanding of their respective goals, methodologies and evaluative criteria. In the process, it will be crucial to properly locate documentation within a wide range of interdisciplinary approaches to human language.
A handout with the poster and summary of our main ideas can be found here [.pdf], and there is a draft paper on the topic here [.pdf].