Gary Holton

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

My interest in linguistics arose during a sea kayak trip through Eastern Indonesia. Paddling slowly along the coast I picked up bits and pieces of languages that I heard along the way and became fascinated with the ways the languages changed from village to village. This was my first real exposure to “small” languages—languages with only a few hundred or few thousand speakers. These small languages evolve to meet the needs of communities, binding speakers to their environment. At the same time these small languages are almost everywhere under threat of being replaced by languages of wider communication.

The Linguist List has had a formative influence on my career. When I entered graduate school in the mid 1990’s the field was in a state of upheaval. After a couple decades spent developing theoretical models of language competence, many in the field had only recently (re-)awoken to the problem of language endangerment. However, just as the field began to re-engage with language documentation we were faced with an unprecedented transformation in digital technologies. During this Digital Dark Age technologies evolved so quickly that I was using a different recording device with every field trip. As each of these devices became obsolete the data they recorded risked becoming more endangered than the languages on those recordings. What was the point of doing all this documentation of endangered languages if we weren’t able to preserve that documentation? When I started my first job at the University of Alaska in 1999 I arrived with boxes filled with cassette tapes, DAT tapes, MiniDiscs, CDs, DVDs and other proprietary digital recording technologies. As I continued to do field work this mess only got worse. Clearly I needed to find a better way to deal with digital data. You might say that documentary linguistics as a field needed to get its house in order.

Over the past two decades the Linguist List has been at the forefront of efforts to develop standards and best practices for dealing with linguistic data. For example, many of the field work and archiving practices that we take for granted today trace their origins to the Electronics Meta-structures for Endangered Languages Data (E-MELD) project, a five-year effort led by the Linguist List which brought together leading scholars from across the world to tackle some of the difficult problems in data preservation, curation, and access. These problems are often thought to lie outside the mainstream of linguistics. Indeed, they are by nature interdisciplinary, existing at the intersection of linguistics, computer science, and archiving. Yet solutions to these problems are critical to linguistics, providing the digital infrastructure which serves as the foundation for much of our work.

Over the years I have had many opportunities to interact with Linguist List in various capacities, but perhaps the most rewarding of these was a joint project which I undertook in collaboration with the Linguist List in 2003 to develop a community language portal for Dena’ina, a language spoken in Southcentral Alaska. The project integrated training for both linguistic graduate students and community members and in the process helped to engage students with language communities. Many of those community members have gone on to become leading activists in Alaska Native language conservation efforts. And many of the students who worked with the Dena’ina project have gone on to make significant contributions to documentary linguistics more generally, continuing to push the field forward with an enhanced awareness of and respect for technical standards and documentary best practices. This is one of the truly great contributions of the Linguist List over the years. The students who have worked with Linguist List come away with a respect for the technical underpinnings of linguistics. For these students digital best practices are the norm, not the exception. Use of non-proprietary formats and depositing data in archives are routine. This generation of scholars is slowly changing our field, helping us to better preserve and provide access to endangered language documentation, while at the same time moving us ever closer to a truly data-driven science of language.

Next time you turn off your digital recorder and save a file, or key in an ELAN transcription, or specify a digital language archive in a grant proposal—that is, next time you do just about any task having to do with language documentation—think about Linguist List. Chances are that Linguist List had some role in helping to make that technology work, helping scholars to agree on standards, making it possible for you to do linguistics. Infrastructure is not the sexiest part of science, but it is arguably the most critical. We owe a lot to Linguist List for helping to develop the technical infrastructure of our field.

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