Language documentation

Language documentation is the process by which a language is documented from a documentary linguistics perspective. 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, 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. 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.[4]

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 journal Language Documentation & Conservation and the yearbook working paper series Language Documentation and Description.


Language description, as a task within linguistics, may be divided into separate areas of specialization:

Related research areas



  1. "Documentary and descriptive linguistics", Nikolaus P. Himmelmann (1998). Linguistics 36:166. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  2. Gippert, Jost, Nikolaus P. Himmelmann, Ulrike Mosel (eds.), 2006. Essentials of Language Documentation. Berlin: Mouton - de Gruyter
  3. Woodbury, Anthony. 2003. Defining Language documentation in Peter K. Austin (ed.) Language Documentation and Description, Vol 1, 35-51. SOAS.
  4. Chang, Debbie. 2011. TAPS: Checklist for Responsible Archiving of Digital Language Resources. MA thesis: Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics.

External links

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