Language documentation, sociolinguistics, ethnography

Language documentation and ethnography

The documentation of endangered languages – at times coupled with efforts to preserve or revitalize dying languages – is the scholarly response to the risk of losing fundamental portions of the richness of human linguistic diversity at a time in which “small” languages are being abandoned at an unprecedented rate. One key aspect of language documentation is that it also includes ethnographic data as it is impossible to document and describe a language without knowing the environmental and socio-cultural worlds in which its speakers live. However, projects differ as to the quantity of ethnographic data collected and the kind of use it is made of them. There are projects in which ethnographic data serve as a corollary to the documentation, which essentially consists of a grammar, a dictionary, and some texts. In others, ethnography informs the actual documentation work bringing it potentially far from a rigid “ancestral-code mode of language documentation” – i.e. linguists’ inclination to focus on one bounded language that they consider the pure language that needs being documented and, if possible, saved from disappearance.

KPAAM-CAM is the natural evolution of a documentary approach that tends to bring together these two models. At the theoretical level, key results of the “progenitor” of KPAAM-CAM (“Towards an areal grammar of the Lower Fungom languages”, 2009-2013, PI Jeff Good, funded by the U.S. NSF BCS-0853981) have been that (i) not only languages but also ways to deploy them can be endangered and (ii) languages may have roles other than ‘repositories of the ancestral identity’ (see Di Carlo & Good 2014). It is undoubtable that in Lower Fungom no less than 7 distinct languages are spoken in the 13 village-chiefdoms found in this area and that all of them are endangered and, thus, in need of being documented as single languages (ancestral-code mode). At the same time, it is equally undoubtable that competence in multiple local languages was and to some extent still is an essential asset for most people to be able to affiliate with more than one village community, a feature that historians and anthropologists have identified time and again in sub-Saharan African traditional societies. This brought us to two important conclusions: (i) the current scenario of extreme linguistic diversity and the widespread multilingualism are two sides of the same language ideology; (ii) documenting single languages cannot ignore the way they are opposed to, and therefore derive their social meaning from, the other languages of their milieu. It was possible for us to arrive at these considerations only because our research included a significant ethnographic and historiographical component.

Integrating sociolinguistic perspectives into language documentation (and vice versa)

Outcomes of language documentation projects contribute to linguistic theory. So far, these contributions have been in the domain of descriptive linguistics more than in any of the other linguistic sub-disciplines as a result of the prevalence of ancestral-code mode of documentation discussed earlier. A project including more substantial ethnographic data, by contrast, is open to dialogue with other sub-disciplines, mainly linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics. It is especially the latter that we think can benefit most from new data from the field of documentary linguistics, and this is one of the goals of KPAAM-CAM.

There are a number of existing articles, books, and edited collections about multilingualism in Africa, but the overwhelming majority of these focus on urban contexts. Shifting the focus from urban patterns of multilingualism to rural ones, as we do in KPAAM-CAM, does not only mean that previously unknown kinds of multilingualism are encountered and described. Rural areas, especially in cases where their societies have retained significant portions of their traditional culture, pose interesting challenges to dominant approaches to multilingualism within sociolinguistics. For instance, much scholarship on multilingualism implicitly assumes that Joshua A. Fishman’s diglossia theory is an effective framework to account for the full range of multilingual behavior. This theory pivots around the idea that in environments in which a significant amount of individual multilingualism is found, each language expresses and is supported by “one set of behaviors, attitudes and values”, and it suggests that one can view multilingualism effectively through the metaphor of a “division of labor” among them. That is, in a linguistic ecology characterized by the coexistence of multiple languages, each of them is understood as having specific and exclusive functions, social meanings, and domains of use.

This conception of multilingualism, while shown to be useful for characterizing many urban contexts, simply does not fit with what is observed in rural and socioculturally more traditional milieus, at least within Africa. Diglossia theory is particularly insightful for the examination of societies that are organized into clear socioeconomic classes. The Western concept of social class, by contrast, is generally not strongly active in rural African societies, which are based around subdivisions that are more salient in the local context and that are often centered around the notion of kinship. Moreover, these rural areas have a number of sociological features that have yet to be systematically explored within sociolinguistics, with the role of language in signalling an individual’s multiple affiliations in local social networks of particular note.

KPAAM-CAM provides a distinctive addition to our descriptive understanding of African multilingualism through its contribution focusing on rural areas based on field-based data. It is also relevant from a theoretical and methodological point of view by exemplifying how the analytical challenges posed by non-urban societies can be effectively approached by linguists and sociolinguists, and the role that language documentation may play for the theoretical and methodological advancement of sociolinguistics.

Team members


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