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[from Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
1st January 2010

To paraphrase John Lennon: "and so this is New Year's Day and what have we done ..."

Well 2009 has been a pretty hectic year for the Endangered Languages Project based at SOAS in London - lots of changes and some exciting new developments. Here are the highlights (you can download our 2009 Annual Report [.pdf] for all the details):

  • the Endangered Languages Academic Programme (ELAP) entered its sixth year of operation and enrolled 17 MA and 4 PhD students in September, the largest intake since we began in 2003. Five PhD and 14 MA students completed their degrees in 2009. ELAP has now graduated 62 MAs in Language Documentation and Description
  • the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) moved into the Linguistics Department at SOAS in February 2009 under the leadership of Head of Department (and Interim ELDP Director) Peter Sells. ELDP's sponsor, Arcadia Fund, agreed to extend its support until 2016 and to create a new post of Director of ELDP, to be filled by an appointment in 2010. ELDP had a busy granting year in 2009, with two grant cycles attracting 136 applications; 35 grants were awarded totaling GBP 1.4 million. ELDP has now funded around 250 projects on endangered languages
  • the Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR) purchased a 48 terabyte NAS storage unit, and designed a new data curation workflow that takes advantage of the storage hardware with fast, transparent access to the archived data. The second stage of the ELAR catalogue, based on a Drupal content management system with a customised and innovative "Web 2.0" approach to access management, went live in February 2009. This provides user accounts to depositors, including facilities to edit and update catalogue entries; development to enable safe access to data, observing depositors' access conditions, will be operational in early 2010

We also held the 3L Summer School and the LDLT2 Conference, both of which attracted 100 participants, oh and Endangered Languages Week that brought in 500 visitors.

Early indications are that 2010 is going to be a busy and productive year both for us at SOAS and for language documentation and endangered languages more generally. For example, the Linguistic Society of America 2010 Annual Meeting in Baltimore 7-10 January features a range of sessions, talks, tutorials and meetings on relevant topics. Friday evening's Invited Plenary Symposium Documentary Linguistics: Retrospective and Prospective followed by Saturday morning's Invited Symposium on the same topic are likely to attract a lot of interest. Add to that Friday morning's Tutorial on Archiving ethically: Mediating the demands of communities and institutional sponsors when producing language documentation, and Saturday morning's Symposium on Findings from Targeted Work on Endangered Languages: 13 Years of the Endangered Language Fund's Projects and you have an LSA meeting unlike any other in the past in terms of the attention being paid to documentation and endangered languages.

In another development that is likely to have important ramifications in 2010 and beyond, the LSA Executive Committee in November 2009 approved and endorsed the following policy statement, which was a revision of an earlier statement approved in 1994 (both statements were drafted by the Committee on Endangered Languages and Their Preservation):

If the central concern of linguistics is essentially anthropological or psychological, i.e. to provide insight into the nature of "humanness" through the investigation of the structure of human language, then linguistics will without question benefit by supporting research on the documentation and conservation of endangered languages. Because each language is a repository of human knowledge and an instantiation of human culture, linguistic diversity significantly embodies the intellectual heritage of humankind. Each language also provides a unique array of linguistic structures which form the basis for the development of linguistic theory. Thus the rapid rate of language loss, from pure extinction to more attenuated patterns involving shift, makes large-scale language documentation and the support of endangered-language speech communities imperative at this time, both for the field of linguistics and for humankind. By "language documentation" we primarily mean providing a lasting record of a language as it is naturally used in a wide array of cultural environments, and elicitation of grammatical, lexical, and broader contextual information from a variety of speakers.

Recognizing that the practice of linguistic fieldwork is shifting to a more collaborative model firmly based on ethical responsibilities to speech communities and a commitment to broadening the impact of scholarship, and further recognizing that this shift in practice has broadened the formats of scholarly products to include not only grammars, dictionaries, and text collections, but also archives of raw and primary data, electronic databases, corpora, critical editions of legacy materials, pedagogical works designed for the use of speech communities, software, websites, or other digital media, the Linguistic Society of America supports the recognition of these materials as scholarly contributions to be given weight in the awarding of advanced degrees and in decisions on hiring, tenure, and promotion of faculty. It supports the development of appropriate means of review of such contributions so that the functionality, import, and scope of such materials can be assessed relative to other language resources and to theoretical works. Departments are encouraged to recognize that the preparation of grammars and dictionaries is an intellectual achievement which requires considerable depth of skill, deep theoretical knowledge, and linguistic expertise, and that the informed collection and analysis of linguistic data is a fundamental and permanent contribution to the foundation of linguistics. In addition, contributions to speech communities in the form of training and/or the development of materials that support language conservation are of significant importance in the preservation of linguistic diversity and should likewise be appropriately evaluated and weighed in the academic personnel process."

The really significant bit is:

"the Linguistic Society of America supports the recognition of [archives of raw and primary data, electronic databases, corpora, critical editions of legacy materials, pedagogical works designed for the use of speech communities, software, websites, or other digital media] as scholarly contributions to be given weight in the awarding of advanced degrees and in decisions on hiring, tenure, and promotion of faculty"

If this gets endorsed at the LSA general meeting, then an important precedent will have been set that has the potential to reshape the value of whole swathes of documentation outputs that have been sidelined up to now. The big challenge, of course is going to be "the development of appropriate means of review ... so that the functionality, import, and scope of such materials can be assessed relative to other language resources and to theoretical works". Some of us will be meeting at the LSA to discuss setting up a Special Interest Group on Language Documentation that will address these and other issues in our field.

Roll on 2010!

The Authors

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.

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