Linguistic Change

A Race against Time – The Documentation of Threatened Languages

Approximately half of the approximately 6,700 languages spoken around the world are in danger of extinction.  Photo: Christian Wilkinson © iStockphotoApproximately half of the approximately 6,700 languages spoken around the world are in danger of extinction.  Photo: Christian Wilkinson © iStockphotoSome hundred endangered languages from around the world have been documented and archived in the Documentation of Endangered Languages (DoBeS) programme. Through analysing these languages, researchers also gaining new insights into well-researched languages such as German.

Approximately half of the approximately 6,700 languages spoken around the world are in danger of extinction, according to UNESCO. Many linguists are convinced that that is not only a tragedy for the people concerned and their language communities, but also for scholarship, which can gain new insights by comparing the most diverse languages.

World-wide documentation

Scholars have analysed languages which were often unfamiliar to them and were only passed on orally all over the world.  Photo: photopiano © 123RFThat is why the Volkswagen Foundation developed its Programme for the Documentation of Endangered Languages in 1999. Since the programme was launched, countless scholars have set off to all the corners of the world to record and analyse languages which were often unfamiliar to them and were only passed on orally. Researchers from the various regions where the endangered languages are spoken also took part in the programme.

Regular training courses on methods and technologies were held both on location and in the small town of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, where the multimedia documentations are archived. A regional documentation centre was also set up with project funding at the university in Manokwari in Indonesia. People in the language communities themselves have also benefited from the projects, however. School grammar books, dictionaries and collections of texts have been compiled, which can be used in class. Within the programme, a total of some 100 endangered languages have been documented and collected in the archive at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.

How do languages make references?

These documentations are now being used as the basis of comparative linguistic research projects.  Photo: Paul Prescott © iStockphotoThese documentations are now being used as the basis of comparative linguistic research projects. Professor Christian Lehmann, Chair of General and Comparative Linguistics at the University of Erfurt, who himself documented a language in the DoBeS archive, is directing one of these projects. For three years, he, together with eleven colleagues from Germany, Switzerland, the USA and Cameroon, will study the referentiality of twelve of the documented languages. “It is all about how the respective languages make reference to objects we talk about and what linguistic means are available to do so. The grammatical rules that come into play vary from language to language,” explains Lehmann. Because referentiality looks at the references between different sentences, you do not need a grammar of the language for this study, but collections of texts.

And this is precisely what the DoBeS Archive in Nijmegen contains - languages such as Aché from Paraguay, Chintang from Nepal and Savosavo from the Solomon Islands. Until 2014, the collected pieces of language data will first of all be standardised, so that in the second phase of the project they can be related to one another and analysed. The results could then be used in teaching material, for example. They will also provide new perspectives on languages such as German or English, in which referentiality has already been the subject of extensive study. “Take, for example the German sentences: 'Der Jäger ging in den Wald und sah einen Löwen. Er tötete ihn' (The hunter went into the forest and saw a lion. He/It killed it/him). You cannot tell who killed whom. In other languages, that can be expressed grammatically. However, we still know very little about how that works”.

Language documentation for all – using apps and Facebook

The programme for the Documentation of Endangered Languages is now entering its final phase.  Photo: Juan Estey © iStockphotoThe Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) and the Society for Endangered Languages in Cologne also fund projects of this kind. But for thirteen years, DoBeS was the most significant funding project in Germany by far for researching endangered languages. The project on referentiality is now one of the last projects to be carried out in the context of DoBeS, since the programme is now entering its final phase. All the projects are to be presented at a major final conference in 2013 and future perspectives discussed.

“We have noticed, for example, that many indigenous communities are represented in social media such as Facebook in order to communicate in their language. We are actively observing this development for possibilities to get involved,” says Dr. Vera Szöllösi-Brenig, who is responsible for the DoBeS programme at the Volkswagen Foundation. “It is being considered that apps could be developed with which speakers could take a photograph of a plant, for example, and record its name, thereby contributing to developing a dictionary themselves. For many indigenous language communities, the new technologies are an incredible opportunity to overcome exclusion by Western written cultures. The Kuikuro in the Xingu reserve in Brazil, for example, meanwhile make their own ethnographic videos about subjects such as the moon myth. They even get national prizes for them! In Argentina, a museum has been set up which also plays a major part in defining identity. The DoBeS programme has given many impulses to science and to the community. Now we are looking for ways for that to be continued.”

Janna Degener
works as a freelance journalist in Cologne.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
December 2012

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