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Describing Morphosyntax

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  • Describing morphosyntax A guide for field linguists

    T H O M A S E . P A Y N E University of Oregon and Summer Institute of Linguistics


  • 1 Demographic and ethnographic information

    The first task of a grammar or grammar sketch is to identify the language being described, and to provide certain particulars concerning its ethnolinguistic context. It is also important to orient the reader to previous literature and other research that has been done on the language.

    1.1 The name of the language Self-referent or auto-denomination are the anthropological terms

    for the name a group of people uses to refer to themselves. Often this name can only be translated as "people," or "human beings." It may also have hierarchically related meanings. For example, the word e'fiapa in Panare (a Carib language of Venezuela) means "person" when used in opposition to the term ne'na "wild animal" or "evil spirit." The same term means "indigen-ous person" when used in opposition to the term tato "outsider'V'white person." Finally, the term can also refer strictly to Panares, when used in opposition to terms referring to neighboring indigenous groups. Only the context can disambiguate.

    The terms by which language groups are known to outsiders are usually drawn from the outsiders' language, and are often derogatory in nature, e.g., in Peru the group now known as the Urarina used to be called the Chimaco, a Quechua term meaning "unreliable." Such terms are often not recognized by the people themselves, and, as in the case with Urarina, the self-referent can sometimes be substituted for the outsiders' term. On the other hand, the term Panare mentioned above is a Tupf word meaning "friend." So the outsiders' form of reference is not always derogatory. If there is a well-established tradition in the literature of using the outsiders'


  • 14 Demographic and ethnographic information

    term, a linguistic researcher should not try to change it, unless the people themselves are offended by the general term and clearly would prefer to be known by the self-referent.

    H What is the language known as to outsiders?

    What term do the people use to distinguish themselves from other language groups?

    What is the origin of these terms (if known)?

    1.2 Ethnology The linguistic researcher may be tempted to spend a lot of time

    describing the material culture and cosmology of the people who speak the language being described. Careful ethnographic notes should be taken throughout your fieldwork, since an essential aspect of knowing a language is knowing the people who speak that language. However, the amount of space dedicated to this topic in a grammatical description should be lim-ited. A detailed ethnography is a worthy topic for a separate monographic study. Some grammatical descriptions that include good, informative, and culturally sensitive ethnological introductions include Dixon (1972), Craig (1977), and Austin (1981)" All too often descriptive grammars contain no ethnological information whatsoever, or it is consigned to footnotes.

    H What is the dominant economic activity of the people?

    Briefly describe the ecosystem, material culture, and cosmology (these will

    be intimately related).

    1.3 Demography A map of the area in which the language is spoken is usually help-

    ful in a grammatical description. Be sure to include the locations of other language groups.

    Where is the language spoken, and how are the people distributed in this area?

    Are there other language groups inhabiting the same area?

    What is the nature of the interaction with these language groups? Economic?

    Social? Friendly? Belligerent?

    In social/economic interactions with other groups, which groups are

    dominant and which are marginalized? How so?

  • 15 Genetic affiliation

    1.4 Genetic affiliation It is important to situate the language among its genetic relat-

    ives. In this section, describe previous research that has attempted to es-tablish genetic relationhips within the language family, as well as external connections.

    What language family does this language belong to?

    What are its closest relatives?

    1.5 Previous research It is very important to be aware of all work that has been done on

    a particular language or language family. If possible, you should get to know personally the prominent scholars in the field. True scholars are always eager to interact with anyone who shows a sincere interest in their work. You should become thoroughly familiar with all historical/comparat-ive work done on the language and/or its family. There are few language families for which no previous work exists. Diachronic and comparative observations will then inform the grammatical description at every point, and you will have a good idea of where your own work fits within the gen-eral scheme of investigation on this language. However, previous work must be evaluated closely before you assume that the linguistic work has "been done."

    The following sources will provide a good general introduction to the languages and language families of the world. These should be seen as starting points for detailed and exhaustive research into the specific litera-ture relating to the language being studied: Voegelin and Voegelin (1977), B. Grimes (1992).

    H What published and unpublished linguistic work has been done in this language and/or its close relatives?

    1.6 The sociolinguistic situation 1.6.1 Multilingualism and language attitudes

    What percentage of the people are monolingual? (Treat men and women


  • 16 Demographic and ethnographic information

    What language(s) are people multil ingual in, and to what degree?

    As far as you can tell, what is the attitude of the speakers of this language

    toward their language, as opposed to other languages they may know? If

    possible, give evidence for your claims even though it may be anecdotal.

    References: Sankoff (1980), Baugh and Sherzer (1984), Fasold (1992a, chs. 1 and 6).

    1 .6 .2 C o n t e x t s o f use a n d l a n g u a g e c h o i c e

    H In what contexts are multilingual individuals likely to use the language described in this sketch? When do they use other languages?

    References: Sherzer (1977), Bauman and Sherzer (1974), Besnier (1986), Baugh and

    Sherzer (1984), Fasold (1992a, ch. 7).

    1 .6 .3 V i a b i l i t y

    H e r e I wi l l suggest s o m e rules o f t h u m b f o r a s s e s s i n g t h e v iabi l i ty

    o f a l a n g u a g e t h a t m a y b e o n t h e v e r g e o f e x t i n c t i o n . T h e s e s h o u l d n o t b e

    c o n s i d e r e d def in i t ive b y a n y m e a n s , s i n c e a l a n g u a g e ' s v iabi l i ty m a y b e

    af fected by any n u m b e r of extral inguist ic fac tors . F a c t o r s t h a t lead to language

    e x t i n c t i o n i n c l u d e a s s i m i l a t i o n t o a n o t h e r c u l t u r e a n d l a n g u a g e , m i g r a t i o n ,

    d i sease , g e n o c i d e , a n d i n s e n s i t i v e g o v e r n m e n t p o l i c i e s . F a c t o r s t h a t l e a d to

    l a n g u a g e m a i n t e n a n c e a n d p r e s e r v a t i o n i n c l u d e l i t e r a c y c a m p a i g n s ,

    n a t i o n a l i s t i c m o v e m e n t s w i t h i n t h e g r o u p , a n d h u m a n i t a r i a n g o v e r n m e n t

    p o l i c i e s . W i t h t h e s e q u a l i f i c a t i o n s in m i n d , h e r e a r e t h e rules o f t h u m b :

    1 If there are no, or extremely few, children under the age of ten who are

    learning the language as their only language, the language will become

    extinct in the lifetime of the youngest mother-tongue speakers (i.e., sixty

    to seventy years).

    2 If there is more than a handful of ten-year-old children who are

    monolingual in the languagd, and who have regular contact with each

    other (i.e., they live in the same community), the language will be taught to

    the next generation. This means that in sixty years the language will still be

    used as a regular means of everyday conversation in some communities.

    The viability of the language may still improve or deteriorate depending

    on sociological and other factors.

    3 If many children are learning the language monolingually and essential

    economic activity (e.g., buying, selling, and/or distributing of essential

    goods) is conducted in the language, extinction is not imminent - the

    language could persist indefinitely.

  • 17 The sociolinguistic situation

    The topic of language death and viability relates to the question of whether someone can be a "partially competent" native speaker of a lan-guage. It is clearly possible to have a native-like knowledge of one part of a language system and be lacking in another part. For example, one can have native-like phonology and syntax, but lack a wide vocabulary and have imperfect gender and case morphology, or satisfactory phonology and mor-phology but gaps in the syntax and vocabulary. It also appears that items heard in early childhood can persist in long-term memory and reappear in consciousness only decades later (Wayles Browne, p.c.). Also, there are cases where individuals appear to lack full fluency in any language. Such individuals are sometimes referred to as semilinguals, though this term is considered by some to be insulting, and therefore should be avoided if pos-sible. For example, among the Yagua people of northeastern Peru, certain younger women who are partially culturally assimilated to the national culture do not apparently have full command of Spanish or Yagua. T

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