Language Documentation, a new subfield within linguistics, refers to the creation of high-quality digital recordings of stories, narratives, dialog or elicitation sessions on grammatical topics. ELA strives to transcribe and annotate as much of this material as possible, sharing results with the public and with the language community itself, which typically plays a major role in directing, if not explicitly initiating, the project.
It is often pointed out by speakers of endangered languages that notions like “documentation” and “preservation” bear an uncomfortable resemblance to pickling and seem quite removed from the everyday struggle to keep languages spoken in the community. From the most severe perspective, the entire notion of documenting endangered languages can be viewed as unethical, like a portrait artist plying their trade in an emergency room. There is nothing wrong with painting portraits, but the emergency room is a place for surgeons, not analysts. The hope of course is that documentary work will feed into revitalization. In practice, this may turn out to be more rationalization than reality. There is widespread agreement that the single key to perpetuating language is immersion schools for children. The classic products of linguistic research, grammars, dictionaries and archived recordings, are ultimately peripheral to such activities. Languages were spoken before such resources existed and if there are still speakers left, their languages can be passed on orally as they were since time immemorial. So, contrary to popular belief, an endangered language needs preschool teachers to survive far more than it needs linguists. Unfortunately, however, there are very few institutions that offer training in the creation of an immersion program.
Linguists, however, have made major contributions in the realm of revitalization. While few end up on the front lines, e.g. as preschool teachers or agitators for language rights, many have been instrumental in training those who would lead the charge. Furthermore, in those cases where circumstances may not have allowed for revitalization, linguists have been able to create a lasting record of a language which in some cases has formed the basis for revitalization efforts today. Two prominent local examples of this involve Algonquian peoples, the Miami tribe’s Myaamia Center, headed by Daryl Baldwin, and the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, headed by Jessie “little doe” Baird. Both groups are succeeding in bringing back their language child by child several decades after the last active speakers had passed away and this success has been made possible in part with the help of linguists; Ken Hale in the case of Wôpanâak, who helped mentor Jessie “little doe” Baird, and David Costa in the case of Myaamia, who has devoted much of his career to the interpretation, analysis and reconstruction of the Miami-Illinois language.
Nikolaus Himmelmann (1998, 2006) has argued that description should not be mistaken for primary data, i.e., recordings, transcribed texts and annotations. Documentary linguistics emphasizes the link between data and description both for the purposes of preserving the original record as well as for verifying statements made about the language. Good documentation, it is argued, constitutes a “lasting, multi-purpose record of a language”. Longevity is achieved through archiving recordings in open formats at institutions which can guarantee their safety (e.g. ELAR, DoBeS, AILLA, Paradisec, California Language Archive). By “multi-purpose”, it is intended that documentation be able to satisfy the interests and needs of diverse parties: community members interested in revitalization, linguists interested in description as well as family members and others who are interested in the historical, cultural and sentimental value that field recordings contain.