Describing Morphosyntax: a Guide for Field Linguists

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Thomas E. Payne

Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Oregon

In 1996 there were approximately 6,700 distinct languages spoken worldwide (Grimes 1996). Approximately 4,000 of these have received little or no significant linguistic description. There are not enough professional linguists to accomplish the task of producing grammatical descriptions of these languages before many of them become extinct. Therefore, the task must be accomplished by field specialists, preferably native speakers of the languages being described. Describing Morphosyntax: a Guide for Field Linguists is one instrument designed to facilitate this task.

The urgency of widespread descriptive linguistics at the present juncture in history is underscored by two worldwide trends. First, there is the rapid extinction of many of the world's languages. Krauss (1992) estimates that 3,000 of the 6,700 or so languages spoken today will become extinct in the present century. When a language dies without written records, all potential for enriching human experience embodied in the oral tradition and wisdom of that culture is lost forever. Hale (1992) effectively argues that the loss of diversity that language extinction represents is a scientific and human tragedy. In recognition of this grave situation, the Linguistic Society of America has established a Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation. Also, the Comité International des Linguistes chose "Endangered Languages" as the general theme of the 15th International Congress of Linguists, held in August, 1992.

Second, there is the worldwide resurgence of ethnic pride. Many cultures that have for years been suppressed under authoritarian national structures are now asserting their independence and expecting equal representation on the international agenda. As little as 20 years ago it was common, even for anthropologists, to use expressions and concepts such as "primitive language". Now, however, it is recognized that all languages are co-equal reflections of human creative, intellectual and cognitive capacity. All are significant and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, even though some may be spoken by very few and possibly powerless individuals.

Along with this resurgence of ethnic nationalism is the internationalization of education. Until recently many people groups were completely outside the sphere of international economic and educational life. Now, however, it is increasingly difficult to maintain this isolation. International economic pressures impinge on virtually every community on earth. Recognizing this fact, many previously isolated peoples have placed a high priority on acquiring the training and credentials that will enable them to compete equitably in the international arena. Individuals who have obtained higher education desire to better themselves and their communities, and are participating in the evolution of the educational systems of the world.

These facts combine to make a push for descriptive linguistic research extremely urgent. Though descriptive linguistics alone will not solve the problems of language and cultural extinction, it is an important part of the solution. The mere existence of a good dictionary and grammatical description confers a certain status on a language that may have previously been considered to be of little importance. Furthermore, the products of descriptive linguistic research constitute part of the reference material necessary to develop indigenous educational materials and written literature. Good linguistic research communicates to minority language speakers and to surrounding groups that the minority language is viable and worthy of respect.

Finally, from the scientific perspective, good linguistic descriptions constitute the raw data for much research into the organization of the human mind. The tension between universality and diversity of language constitutes the subject matter for linguistics as a science. The central questions are: "How are all languages alike?" and "What are the limits to their variation?" Needless to say, from this perspective, a corpus of reliable and usable data from as many languages as possible is essential. With every language that becomes extinct, the potential data source for this enterprise becomes narrower.

Describing Morphosyntax is the result of fourteen years of teaching and research in descriptive linguistics. It begins with the common-sense assumption that language is a tool for communication. This assumption guides and integrates the creation of a grammatical description at every stage. Since language is a tool, linguistic structures are not autonomous entities. Rather, they are intimately tied to their functions in human interaction. Practical metaphors such as "discourse is a play" and "building a message is building a building" are used throughout Describing Morphosyntax to make complex concepts concrete and integrate them into a holistic view of language.

Class materials that have contributed to Describing Morphosyntax have been used successfully in the Philippines, Peru, Chile, Venezuela, Kenya and Russia, as well as in the United States of America. Students of many cultural backgrounds have contributed their perspectives and data to Describing Morphosyntax, and have responded positively to the overall approach taken. The author has co-authored two grammatical descriptions based on original fieldwork (Payne and Payne, 1990; Payne and Payne MS), and has served as consultant on several others.

The backbone of Describing Morphosyntax is an outline for a grammatical description of any language. Each section in the outline contains questions regarding a particular area of linguistic structure. For example, the major question for section 11.5 is "How are relative clauses formed?" Subordinate questions include "How is the case of the relativized noun phrase recovered?", "What positions on the relativizability hierarchy can be relativized?", etc. The text of each section explains the questions and provides examples of how these questions have been answered for other languages. Finally, references are made to the bibliography where the user of Describing Morphosyntax can find additional information on particular topics.

Thus Describing Morphosyntax is more than a "checklist" of information to be included in a grammatical sketch. At the same time, it is far from a compendium of all the information a linguistic field technician is likely to need to produce a full-fledged reference grammar. Rather, Describing Morphosyntax provides a structure for working through the grammatical description of a language at a reasonable level of inclusiveness, while allowing for more comprehensive treatments by pointing to relevant parts of the now extensive literature on universals of language. Describing Morphosyntax integrates this literature, and helps the technician understand how theoretical concepts relate to linguistic data and to one another. In many cases, Describing Morphosyntax also describes how various terminologies are used for the same or similar concepts.

Describing Morphosyntax is designed as a reference guide for linguists, anthropologists and others engaged in linguistic fieldwork. It is based on course materials used in undergraduate and graduate syntax and linguistic field methods courses, and thus is suitable as a textbook for these courses as well. Its holistic and straightforward approach has proven effective in communicating complex concepts to persons from various cultural backgrounds, with and without graduate education in linguistics. Describing Morphosyntax is, therefore, a tool that promises to accelerate the production of grammatical descriptions of previously undescribed languages. It is hoped that this work will contribute to the preservation of the diversity and richness of human culture as expressed in language.

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