It has often been said that the job of linguists working on a small language is not complete until they publish three major works on the language: a grammar, a dictionary, and a volume of texts. This threefold result of extended fieldwork has been described as the “Boasian triad” (e.g. Grinevald 2001, Tsunoda 2006: 245), and ever since Bloomfield’s (1917) “Tagalog texts”, quite a few prominent (and not so prominent) field linguists published text collections (e.g. Heath 1980 on Nunggubuyu, Bollée & Rosalie 1994 on Seychelles Creole, Wichmann 1996 on Texistepec Popoluca, Noonan 1999 on Chantyal, to name but a few).
But more recently, a different view of annotated texts seems to have become prevalent. On the one hand, corpus-based research is becoming more and more important, also for smaller languages, and elicitation-based research seems to be on the defensive (e.g. Davis et al. 2014). But on the other hand, the creation of annotated texts now tends to be subsumed under the larger enterprise of “language documentation”, and the place for a documentation is not the published volume, but the archive. Authors tend to emphasize the use of new technologies for recording (such as video, which has become very cheap), annotating (such as ELAN, which alllows time-aligned annotation) and retrieval via sophisticated metadata. The idea of publication seems to have somehow disappeared, and replaced by a vague notion of access.
The alternative that we would like to discuss here is basically to go back to the old model, where annotated texts/corpora were published by the linguists who recorded and annotated them. Publication has three crucial advantages over simple archiving: (1) It gives the author prestige and thus contributes to career-building, (2) it creates a powerful incentive for annotating as many texts as possible, and (3) it ensures that widely usable high-quality annotations are produced. Moreover, once a corpus is published, it is much more likely that it will actually be used by people other than those who were immediately involved in its creation, including the community of speakers. At least in their current form, archives such as the DoBeS archive, the ELAR archive or the AILLA archive do not make it very easy to access their corpora.
By corpus publication, we do not mean old-style paper publication, of course. Corpora need to be searchable, so modern corpus publication must be electronic, open-access, easily browsable and easily downloadable, with a clear Creative Commons license (e.g. CC-NC-ND) (somewhat along the lines of the examples in APiCS Online. Maybe one could think of supplying a PDF version, so that if readers want a paper version, they can use a print-on-demand service of their choice. We will now discuss each of the advantages of corpus publication in turn.
By publishing an annotated corpus, in a book-series-like or journal-like corpus-publication outlet (henceforth, “corpus journal”), the author gets credit, just like she gets credit for any other (book or) journal publication. This is different from archiving – at least in spirit, the purpose of archiving is preservation, not career-building. The idea of language archives arose in response to the realization that there are not enough resources to publish all documents on small languages, and for endangered languages (which provided much of the impetus for the archiving endeavors), also materials that are not of publishable quality are valuable enough to be archived. But this does not mean that archiving can replace publication. Only publication in a selective peer-reviewed journal or series can create the kind of prestige that is necessary for career-building. So all junior researchers will be very interested in this option, and established linguists should not ignore these concerns either. (It is sometimes suggested that one should build some kind of recognition process on top of the archives, but it is very uncertain whether this will work. It is much easier to use the primary existing process for scientific recognition, namely journal publication, because it is far easier to create a new journal than to create a new type of recognition process.)
Once corpora can be published in a way that counts for the corpus creator’s prestige, we will see a lot of new annotated corpora. Fieldworkers generally have a lot more text material that they could annotate, beyond what they deposit in the archives. If they had the additional incentive of a peer-reviewed publication, many of them would find the resources to do more annotations. Since the archives may contain anything at all, even completely unannotated texts, a well-annotated text in an archive is not particularly visible, and hence fieldworkers are likely to give preference to other activities.
Most importantly, since the corpus journal will be selective, it can insist on certain quality standards for annotations. The annotations found in archives are often annotations created primarily with a small group of users in mind, and there is nobody who enforces particular annotation standards, because even unannotated texts are accepted. A corpus journal would accept only submissions that fulfill certain mimimum standards, and as more and more corpus creators compete for the limited space, the quality of submissions would rise and rise. The submitters should probably be called “editors”, because they are not really “authors of the annotated texts.
How difficult is it to create such a corpus journal? It seems that the technological prerequisites already exist. The CLLD framework allows for publishing annotated example sentences, as seen most clearly in APiCS. The APiCS example sentences do not generally contain sound, but some do. In addition, we need a way to show all the text units of a single text on one page, and to concatenate the individual sound files so that the text can be listened to in its entirety.
The corpus journal would thus have an interface quite similar to LACITO’s Pangloss (for example, this text in Araki), or to Nick Thieberger’s EOPAS (for example, this text in the South Efate language). But in addition, it would have a unique page for each text unit, so that each text unit has a unique “address”, i.e. a unique URL on the web. This unique addressability allows linguists to link easily to example sentences that are found on the web. A vision for the future is that each sentence cited in a linguistics article dealing with a small language will have a link to a web page that shows the actual example in its context, with sound and perhaps even video. (This is much more realistic than the idea of embedding sound files in PDF files, which is technically problematic. Scientific data on the web should be “linked data”, as is generally the case in the CLLD framework.)
Thus, the main challenge would be to set up an editorial board, find an editor, and devise a methodology for evaluating (“peer-reviewing”) corpora.
One of the concerns that we sometimes hear is that publishing texts may be problematic because the speakers or the speaker communities may object to this. This is indeed a problem for some communities, but there are also many communities that have no problem at all with web publication of their texts – on the contrary, many speakers of smaller African or Asian languages are thrilled to see that their language is prominently represented on the web. It seems that the more restrictive attitude is characteristic especially of some speakers of North American and Australian languages, and linguists working on these kinds of languages have traditionally been quite influential. But it is doubtful that this restrictive attitude is characteristic of the majority of language communities. In any event, many texts of small languages are being made public without any serious restrictions, through the archives, through sites like Pangloss and EOPAS, and as appendixes of grammars, so it is clear that many speakers are happy to have their texts published. If these texts were published as open-access linked data (as in the CLLD framework), in a peer-reviewed journal, it seems that substantial progress could be made.
Recently David Nathan has argued against the open-access principle in language documentation, because
“the most linguistically authentic resources – recordings of spontaneous language events in social contexts – often raise questions of privacy, safety, or of controversial or secret/sacred content”
This may be true, and such records may be very valuable to those few people who are allowed to access them. But precisely because so few people can use them, they are not very valuable to linguistic science. Science is an activity that thrives on openness, and in contrast to David Nathan (“language documentation materials are not scholarly research”), we do think that annotating corpora is a scientific activity. The outputs of this research should therefore be published with open access, to the extent that this is possible, i.e. whenever the speakers are happy with this.
Bloomfield, Leonard. 1917. Tagalog texts with grammatical analysis. Part 1: Texts and translation. Part 2: Grammatical analysis. University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 2.
Bollée, Annegret & Marcel Rosalie. 1994. Parol ek memwar: récits de vie des Seychelles. (Kreolische Bibliothek 13). Hamburg: Buske.
Drude, Sebastian. 2012. Prospects for e-grammars and endangered languages corpora. Potentials of Language Documentation: Methods, Analyses, and Utilization, ed. by Frank Seifart, Geoffrey Haig, Nikolaus P. Himmelmann, Dagmar Jung, Anna Margetts, and Paul Trilsbeek, pp. 7–16
Grinevald, Colette. 2001. Encounters at the brink: Linguistic fieldwork among speakers of endangered languages. In Osamu Sakiyama (ed.), Lectures on Endangered Languages 2, 285–313. Osaka: ELPR Publications.
Heath, Jeffrey. 1980. Nunggubuyu myths and ethnographic texts. (23). Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.
Noonan, Michael. 1999. Chantyal dictionary and texts. (Trends in Linguistics: Documentation 17). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Tsunoda, Tasaku. 2006. Language endangerment and language revitalization: An introduction. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Wichmann, Søren. 1996. Cuentos y colorados en popoluca de Texistepec. København: C.A. Reitzel.