The International Year of Indigenous Languages Puts a Spotlight on the Importance of their Documentation and Preservation

2011 ILA Honoree Nora Dauenhauer, Indigenous Leadership Award, Portland, Oregon, USA, November 2, 2011 | © Courtesy of Sam Beebe/Flickr.
2011 ILA Honoree Nora Dauenhauer, Indigenous Leadership Award, Portland, Oregon, USA, November 2, 2011 | © Courtesy of Sam Beebe/Flickr.

In celebration of the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) declared by the United Nations (UN) for 2019, De Gruyter Mouton features in monthly free access a raft of its book titles that explore endangered indigenous languages, their documentation challenges and their grammatical features.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.

As Simona Montanari in her article on “Sammarinese, the Endangered Language of the Republic of San Marino: A Preliminary Study of Documentation and Description” in Dialectologia et Geolinguistica demonstrates, indigenous languages tend to be oral, have ancient historical roots and suffer from the consequences of modernization that promotes national languages at the expense of local language varieties that become marginalized. As against this, Montanari argues, linguistic corpora of oral languages can serve as tentative bulwarks, since as research resources they also show the workings of historical and geography-related factors, such as Roman, Greek, Germanic and Lombard influences, on vernacular languages, e.g., Sammarinese.

A similar picture emerges from A Grammar and Lexicon of Yintyingka by Jean-Christophe Verstraete and Bruce Rigsby (2015) that contend that the future existence of indigenous languages is under threat, as they increasingly become only accessible through documentation. As this book outlines, painstaking linguistic, archival and ethnographic work, such as on sociolinguistic patterns, is necessary to preserve the record of this already extinct Pama-Nyungan language of Cape York Peninsula, Australia, for posterity. Likewise, in their edited volume on Language Documentation and Revitalization in Latin American Contexts, Gabriela Pérez-Báez, Chris Rogers and Jorge Emilio Labrada Roses have collected a diverse roster of contributions that present in detail the challenges that the research on, the revitalization of and the preservation of vernacular languages, such as Wixárika, in Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua and other South American countries pose. In this respect, Pérez-Báez, Rogers and Labrada Roses have sought to present, as editors, the methodologically best practices for this field of multidisciplinary research. For instance, this collection presents the paper of Denny Moore and Ana Vilacy Galucio in which they talk about the Suruí people in Brazil, to preserve and protect the language and culture of which they use GPS technology and Google Maps satellite images.

Similarly, Alice Vittrant and Justin Watkins have edited an upcoming collection of studies on the development of languages in the linguistic area of the mainland Southeast Asia, to be published by De Gruyter Mouton in April 2019. One such language is Yichun Gan Chinese the grammatical aspects of which Xuping Li (2018) has studied comparatively in relation to Mandarin Chinese and other Sinitic languages in his recent monograph, which is scheduled for free access in April, 2019. Works of this type critically depend on the existence of lasting and multipurpose records of indigenous languages, their corpora and multimedia representations as Jost Gippert, Nikolaus P. Himmelmann and Ulrike Mosel (2016) stress in their collected volume on the Essentials of Language Documentation.

This is illustrated in the book-length study by on the grammar of Hinuq, a Nakh-Daghestanian language with around 600 speakers in the Caucasus region of Russia. For this research published in 2013, Diana Forker has conducted several fieldwork trips, collected extensive linguistic corpora and conducted a comprehensive analysis of this endangered language, such as in relation to language phonology, grammatical inflections, structures and categories and toponyms.

In this regard, research on vernacular and indigenous languages is a burgeoning field of linguistics that both continues to expand and is slated to benefit from the attention that the UN International Year of Indigenous Languages will draw to it.

By Pablo Markin

Featured Image Credits: 2011 ILA Honoree Nora Dauenhauer, Indigenous Leadership Award, Portland, Oregon, USA, November 2, 2011 | © Courtesy of Sam Beebe/Flickr.

This blog post is based on an article that originally appeared in OpenScience, 27/3/2019,

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