Language documentation is the process by which a language is documented from a documentary linguistics perspective. It aims to "to provide a comprehensive record of the linguistic practices characteristic of a given speech community." Language documentation seeks to create as thorough a record as possible of the speech community for both posterity and language revitalization. Language documentation also provides a firmer foundation for linguistic analysis in that it creates a citable set of materials in the language on which claims about the structure of the language can be based.
Typical steps involve recording, transcribing (often using the International Phonetic Alphabet and/or a "practical orthography" made up for that language), annotation and analysis, translation into a language of wider communication, archiving and dissemination. Critical is the creation of good records in the course of doing language description. The materials can be archived, but not all archives are equally adept at handling language materials preserved in varying technological formats, and not all are equally accessible to potential users.
Language documentation complements language description, which aims to describe a language's abstract system of structures and rules in the form of a grammar or dictionary. By preparing good documentation in the form of recordings with transcripts and then collections of texts and a dictionary, a linguist work better and also provide materials for use by speakers of the language. New technologies permit better recordings, with better descriptions, all of which can be housed in digital archives, like AILLA or PARADISEC, and be made available to the speakers with little effort.
Language documentation has also given birth to new specialized publications, such as the free online and peer-reviewed journal Language Documentation & Conservation and the yearbook working paper series Language Documentation and Description.
Language description, as a task within linguistics, may be divided into separate areas of specialization:
- Phonetics, the study of the sounds of human language
- Phonology, the study of the sound system of a language
- Morphology, the study of the internal structure of words
- Syntax, the study of how words combine to form grammatical sentences
- Semantics, the study of the meaning of words (lexical semantics), and how these combine to form the meanings of sentences
- Historical linguistics, the study of languages whose historical relations are recognizable through similarities in vocabulary, word formation, and syntax
- Pragmatics, the study of how language is used by its speakers
- Stylistics, the study of style in languages
- Paremiography, the collection of proverbs and sayings
- Descriptive linguistics
- Orthography, the study of writing systems
- Lexicography, the study and practice of making dictionaries
- Phonology, the study of describing the sound system of a language
- Etymology, the study of how words acquire their meanings
- Anthropological linguistics
- The Language Conservancy
- SIL International
- PARADISEC Archive
- LACITO and the Pangloss Collection
- First Peoples' Heritage, Language and Culture Council
- World Oral Literature Project, Voices of Vanishing Worlds
- Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity
- "Documentary and descriptive linguistics", Nikolaus P. Himmelmann (1998). Linguistics 36:166. Berlin: de Gruyter.
- Gippert, Jost, Nikolaus P. Himmelmann, Ulrike Mosel (eds.), 2006. Essentials of Language Documentation. Berlin: Mouton - de Gruyter
- Woodbury, Anthony. 2003. Defining Language documentation in Peter K. Austin (ed.) Language Documentation and Description, Vol 1, 35-51. SOAS.
- Chang, Debbie. 2011. TAPS: Checklist for Responsible Archiving of Digital Language Resources. MA thesis: Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics.
- Dying Words (2009), by Prof. Nick Evans, about what is lost when languages are lost.
- The Poet’s Salary (2009), award-winning documentary by Éric Wittersheim, about linguistic fieldwork in northern Vanuatu.
- The Linguists (2008), documentary film about two linguists traveling the world to rescue languages
- Recording your elder/Native speaker, practical vocal recording tips for non-professionals
- Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity, mailing list
- University of Hawai'i Department of Linguistics
- Lakota Language Consortium
- DOBES Documentation of Endangered Languages