Language documentation

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Language documentation (also: documentary linguistics) is a subfield of linguistics which aims to describe the grammar and use of human languages. It aims to provide a comprehensive record of the linguistic practices characteristic of a given speech community.[1][2][3] 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, maintaining metadata, 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.[4] 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.[5]

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 works 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 journals Language Documentation & Description and Language Documentation & Conservation


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

Related research areas[edit]



  1. ^ Himmelmann, Nikolaus P. (1998). "Documentary and descriptive linguistics" (PDF). Linguistics. 36 (1): 161-195. doi:10.1515/ling.1998.36.1.161. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  2. ^ Gippert, Jost; Himmelmann, Nikolaus P.; Mosel, Ulrike, eds. (2006). Essentials of language documentation (PDF). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. x, 424. ISBN 978-3-11-018864-6. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  3. ^ Woodbury, Anthony C. (2003). "Defining documentary linguistics". In Austin, Peter K. (ed.). Language documentation and description. 1. London: SOAS. p. 35-51. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  4. ^ Boerger, Brenda H.; Moeller, Sarah Ruth; Reiman, Will; Self, Stephen (2018). Language and culture documentation manual. Leanpub. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  5. ^ Chang, Debbie. 2011. TAPS: Checklist for Responsible Archiving of Digital Language Resources Archived 2013-06-17 at the Wayback Machine. MA thesis: Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics.

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