Lecture | Shobhana Chelliah | The Disruptive Force of Endangered Language Documentation on Linguistics and Beyond
Language Documentation is a reborn, refashioned, and reenergized subfield of linguistics motivated by the urgent task of creating a record of the world’s fast disappearing languages. In addition to producing resources for communities interested in language and culture preservation, maintenance, and revitalization, language documentation continues to produce data that challenge and improve linguistic theory. A case in point is a pattern of participant marking, i.e. ways that speakers indicate who does what to whom in a sentence, in the endangered languages of the Tibeto-Burman region (Northeast India). From current typological studies we expect one of three participant marking patterns and these are based on purely syntactic factors. From very small languages in and around the Himalayan region we discover that that there is a possible fourth pattern based not on syntax but on information structure and pragmatics – a game changing discovery for syntactic and typological theory. Endangered language data also provides data on how humans represent and interact with their environment and through this data provide a window into human cognition. Looking again at Tibeto-Burman, we find languages with complex systems of directional marking which, in the simplest sense, indicate the direction in which an activity is or will be performed. However, directionals are metaphorically extended to express movement through time and social or psychological space. Appropriate usage requires knowledge of social conventions and the cultural attribution of relative prestige of locations. Such data requires us to revisit theories of spatial cognition.