Language Revitalization in Louisiana

Documentary Linguistics for Anthropologists

Stephanie Hasselbacher

PhD student Stephanie Hasselbacher Berryhill recently recived a grant from the Hans Rausing Endangered Language Programme to study an American Indian language in Louisiana and wrote this report on her work.

This past summer, I headed over to Elton, Louisiana to participate in the Coushatta Tribe's language documentation and revitalization efforts.  As I wondered which aspect of this work would be most interesting to share in this venue, it occurred to me that I should probably explain what an anthropologist is doing mixed up in a project designed for a linguist in the first place.  So I am taking this opportunity to briefly introduce the field of documentary linguistics (aka language documentation) to those who may not know it, and to suggest that anthropology as a field has much to offer this growing body of research.

To situate myself with respect to that suggestion, I did my MA in linguistics with the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Programme (HRELP) at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, UK before I started in the William and Mary Department of Anthropology.  When I studied at HRELP five years ago, the field of language documentation was still in an early stage that promoted linguistic science first, language practices second (having been relegated to the status of metadata), and revitalization and literacy as interesting but distant third and fourth priorities.  To put it harshly, some of the earliest documentary linguists would not have really cared if the language disappeared, as long as they documented it first.

The field of documentary linguistics really got its start in the 1990's as an academic response to the alarming rate at which languages all over the world are falling into disuse.  Early work in the field sought to preserve endangered languages in order to provide a well-rounded sample for linguistic science, which looks to answer grand questions of language universals.  But for the Coushatta speakers with whom I work, revitalization is the ultimate goal, not a bonus or afterthought to scientific documentation.  Thus, when I returned to HRELP in September of this year for a grantee training workshop, I felt like something of an anthropological intruder on the linguists' turf.  Happily, I was mistaken.  One important takeaway of the training, and the point I chose to discuss here, is this: you do not have to be a linguist to contribute.  Anthropologists are needed, and welcome.
To be fair, language documentation has had a more anthropological bent than its sister sub-discipline of linguistics from the beginning.  It has always included collection of linguistic data from a wide variety of contexts, and recognized the anthropological importance of recording the social and cultural contexts in which the target language occurs, including "naturalistic" data from conversation.  At the end of the day, though, the linguists' research interest was in the denotational code itself, and anthropological interests tended to fall by the wayside.  The lack of concern has been mutual.  The Wenner-Gren Foundation, for example, explicitly prohibits funding for documentary and revitalization work.  This is understandable, given that documentary work typically has been viewed as anthropologically atheoretical.  It is my personal opinion that language documentation and anthropology have suffered from a mutual disinterest in part because of the former's rhetoric of "salvage", a legacy which anthropology has been trying to leave behind.

But given my recent experiences with the other endangered languages research grantees, I think a productive interdisciplinary relationship is blossoming.   Contributing to the worldwide body of data for the study of Language is still on the table, certainly.  I noticed, however, some substantial differences in attitude at HRELP between 2005 and 2010.  One major goal of the grantee training was to consider the interdisciplinary needs that language documentations might serve in the future, including but not limited to the needs of the speakers themselves, their descendants, historical anthropologists, folklorists, historians, ethnomusicologists, gesture analysts, and theoretical linguists.  Insofar as we can predict what they will be, documentary linguists are trying to plan language corpora to incorporate those needs from the beginning.  In fact, many linguists are not partial to a particular subject matter and respond positively to suggestions and requests from other fields.  For example, Linda Barwick's article, "A Musicologist's Wishlist," which offers some simple ways in which language documentation can contribute to musicology, is referenced in many introductory materials for beginning language documenters (Barwick, L. "A Musicologist's Wishlist: Some Issues, Practices and Practicalities in Musical Aspects of Language Documentation."  Language Description and Documentation 4 (2005): 53-62.)

Furthermore, I had suspected that the associated language archive, with its limited space, would only be interested in audio-visual media files and their associated technical, linguist-friendly(read as: "incomprehensible to non-linguists") transcriptions.  The grantees were encouraged, however, to submit any and all documentation that relates to their projects, including still photos, field notes, vernacular orthography transcriptions, and preliminary academic papers-- such that the archive will contain and protect a wealth of related materials to elucidate the data for any interested party (with the appropriate permissions of course, to be determined by the contributor rather than the archivist). 

What this says to me is that anthropologists could extend a similar consideration.  As language archives begin to structure themselves to include the needs of historical anthropologists, I believe that anthropologists-particularly those of us who work with speakers of underdocumented languages and/or legacy data from dormant languages-should seriously consider contributing language material to linguistic archives, and looking to them much as we look to historical archives for information and research inspiration.