Content Collection: Describing Language

Content Collection: Describing Language

All languages have structures or rules by which speakers of the language are able to understand one another. These rules concern the sounds a language (or the gestural units of a signed language) uses in order to form words, and then sentences and entire discourses. The sounds of a language may be mapped to the letters or a writing system to represent the words, sentences, and discourses in written, rather than spoken form.

Elicting HupaLanguages can be described in various ways, following different traditions, but the heavy work of describing languages fully and completely is usually left to linguists. The end products of a full linguistic description of a language are a grammar and a dictionary, each of which can run into the hundreds of pages. To a certain extent, though, a grammar and a dictionary can be embodied in a language’s literature and, if the language doesn’t have a literacy tradition, in its oral history, its folklore, and its cultural practices. The rules are not explicitly stated, but they are internalized in different ways and to different extents in individuals. Grammars and dictionaries of these sorts are best learned from birth in parent-to-child and sibling-to-sibling interactions.

For endangered languages the natural method of acquiring grammars and dictionaries of an endangered language are often not available to communities; that is, parents have stopped transmitting the language to their children. In this circumstance, the linguistically developed materials need to be relied on more heavily. They will often be the main or even the only source of information about the language to those wanting to revive it.

But using linguistic materials can be challenging to people not trained in linguistic research. There can be a big gap in understanding between someone academically trained to read a research report and someone without that same academic background reading the same paper. An academic paper assumes a lot of background knowledge and uses a lot of specialized language. So, given the communication gap, how does the value in the research make its way to being helpful to regular people doing language revitalization?

We’ll try to handle this issue by using this content collection to reinterpret significant academic research to make it more understandable to members without the academic background of the specialists — we’ll try, in other words, to put the concepts into a warmer light.