Language Documentation and Revitalization

Old Musical, Old Language, New Experience

Hello LINGUIST Listers,

On the topic of language maintenance and revitalization efforts that we have been discussing during our 2019 LINGUIST List Fund Drive, let’s look at an exciting development in the world of musical theater.

The critically-acclaimed Broadway classic “Fiddler on the Roof” premiered off-Broadway entirely in the Yiddish language for the first time earlier this year. This newly re-imagined version of the musical pays greater homage to its roots; the original musical was based on Yiddish novels written by Sholem Aleichem around the turn of the twentieth century. Theater-goers reported an exciting authenticity watching the production in the language that Tevye and his village-mates would have been speaking in the early 1900s.

The Yiddish language has undergone seriously decline in recent decades but the creators of the new version hope that having such an iconic musical entirely in Yiddish will encourage an improved image for the language. Much of the Yiddish-speaking population now resides in the New York City area. With the production of “Fiddler of the Roof” happening nearby, it is hoped that increased exposure will strengthen the language’s vitality in the region and encourage the rising generation to respect their heritage.

Whether this will be the case will have to be seen but overall it is an enthralling project for Yiddish-speakers, “Fiddler” fans, and proponents of minority languages everywhere.

Fund Drive 2019 is among us! To donate please visit this link:

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Music and Language Revitalization

Music can takes us to exotic locales, different time periods, and acquaint us with foreign cultures. Art by Aeon Lux.


Hello Linguist Listers,

Previously my fellow colleagues wrote about Language Revitalization in the context of modern-day technologies and cinema. These are both powerful methodologies for galvanizing interest in foreign languages and subsequently assisting with language revitalization efforts. Today I would like to talk about language revitalization in the context of one more medium and that is music. As we all know music is one of the most powerful tools for evoking emotion in our fellow humans. From rousing classical symphonies like Beethoven’s 5th to more ambient, future-oriented electronic pieces, music can evoke, not only a wide range of emotions, but also specific times and places in the minds of listeners. These qualities make music a perfect vehicle for expressing oneself and also a great way of expressing one’s language and culture. As a matter of fact, music is so good at this that it has already shown results in sparking interest in foreign languages. “A desire to learn the lyrics of K-Pop hits like Gangnam Style has boosted the Korean language’s popularity in countries like the US, Canada, Thailand and Malaysia” reads the opening line of an article from the BBC. This article details the increase in interest in the Korean language as it has grown in recent years. It is true that Korean is not an endangered language but this is an example of the kinds of media that help to get people interested in languages and the cultures that they are tied to.

One more example of this is the current most-played song in the history of YouTube which is Despacito by Luis Fonsi. Its lyrics are written completely in Spanish and it is not just the most-played song on YouTube but it is also currently the most viewed YouTube video of all time. Period. I did not find articles detailing the impact of this song on Spanish language learning in my quick search but I suspect that it has a similar effect to what we see with Korean and K-pop music. To speak momentarily from personal experience, I have always had a latent interest in the Japanese language. This interest was almost undoubtedly sparked by my early exposure to anime which is a form of Japanese animation that has gained a large following in the West. When I was a child, my Father would watch the shows with my younger brother and I and we always thoroughly enjoyed the opening and ending themes to the shows. These musical pieces were frequently sung in Japanese and over time I began to enjoy the songs in their own right. The tools to learn Japanese were not quite as easily available at the time but, as my colleague mentioned, the technology of today is central to language learning and it has allowed me to indulge my interest in the language (when I have free time, which is a rare occurrence lol).

Example of the Anime Art Style

All-in-all, I believe that music and other art forms offer a powerful method for exposing people to foreign cultures and languages and that we should leverage these as much as we can in order to prop up, protect, and revitalize as many endangered languages as possible. These languages are disappearing at an alarming rate and this is just one of the many ways in which we can promote linguistic and cultural diversity in a world that definitely needs it.

Thanks so much for reading our blog and keep doing great work!


Everett G.

Language, Revitalization, and Documentation… in the Movies!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

Hello again! Last year we wrote about language in pop culture, the movies, and other media, and this year we are writing about language documentation and revitalization in honor of our theme of renewal for the 2019 Fund Drive. I… I don’t have a lot of experience in this area of field linguistics, if I’m going to be honest. (My fieldwork courses start next semester, okay?)

Anyway so I’m going to talk about… language in the movies again! This time, language revitalization and documentation in the movies!


Are all Lang Doc efforts in film somehow involve aliens instead of human languages? (This is still a great movie, btw, Whorfianism aside.)

And the minute I started thinking about this blog post, it occurred to me that language documentation and revitalization are not really well-represented topics in most pop culture, film, and other media. The example that came to mind first was 2017’s Arrival, in which linguist Louise Banks performs a variation of Ken Pike’s monolingual demonstration in her efforts to bridge the language gap between humans and aliens. But surely we as a culture have more to say about our own human language gaps, right? As linguists, you are all aware of how fast the world’s languages are becoming endangered, in part as a consequence of increased globalization and the influence of a small handful of dominant cross-cultural linguae francae. So why isn’t this global phenomenon–crisis even–getting more attention?


By Source, Fair use,

In the movies, most instances of “language documentation” occur when explorers or even colonizers encounter indigenous peoples, and it’s more an instance of the explorers learning the language than an instance of someone trying to write it down to ensure its survival. A quick trip down Google lane yields, of course, The Linguists, a documentary about two linguists traveling to various homes of endangered languages and trying to find native speakers, sometimes when there are as few as nine or ten living speakers.



However, things are looking up for endangered languages in film–by now you may have heard of a Canadian movie that was made entirely in an endangered language, a film that aims to be a preservation effort for its language-subject. It’s language documentation/revitalization as art. Which is pretty cool.

The movie is called SGaawaay K’uuna, (‘Edge of the Knife’) and it is performed in Haida, a language spoken fluently by just twenty speakers, the Haida people of British Columbia. According to the article linked above, Haida is a language isolate.

Actor Tyler York in SGaawaay K’uuna. Photograph: Niijang Xyaalas Productions.

Director Gwaai Edenshaw says he is unwilling to accept Haida as somehow unavoidably moribund–and in my experience, many linguists agree. It’s not over for any endangered or sleeping language. Personally, it seems to me like creating Haida art, Haida film, is one of the best ways to vitalize interest in the preservation of Haida against the overwhelming odds of globalization. Read about the film in the link above–we think it’s something linguists the world over would love to see! It premiers in the UK in April.

But don’t let the use of Haida come off like a gimmick–check out the trailer to see how gorgeous the cinematography is (those sweeping landscape shots!) and what a strong sense of mood and place the film seems to have… and to hear some spoken Haida.

The film premiers in the UK in April, but I wasn’t able to determine a premier date for viewers from other parts of the world during my brief Google tour. Nonetheless, I’m going to keep my eye out for showings in my area, and I think all linguists should find a way to support the production of more Haida-language media by finding out where they can see SGaawaay K’uuna!

Thanks again for reading our blog, and for all your support of the LINGUIST List throughout the years! As you know, the 2019 Fund Drive is under way and we have reached just 20% of our goal! We rely on you, our readers and supporters, to keep this service available to the global linguistics community, so if you can, please consider donating here!

Thanks so much for all the support over the last 29(!) years–

The LL Team

Thank you to the University of Antarctica

Hello all,

Several of the consultants assisting researchers

We here at the LINGUIST List would like to give a shout out to the University of Antarctica for their extremely generous donation of $20,000. As the #6 top university in Linguistics in the world, with the #4 best graduate Linguistics program, their work is invaluable to the community, especially their latest project documenting the indigenous languages of Antarctica.

With such a large area and the difficulty of travel across the continent, it is no surprise that there are diverse dialects throughout Antarctica. The goal of the U of A’s most recent project is to document the features of these various dialects and, eventually, to create a dialectal map of the entire continent. It is a bold undertaking, but certainly a valuable one for any future researchers interested in the indigenous Antarctic populations.

For example, on the northern side of the continent, it is common to include only one squawk between trills. In contrast, on the northern side of the continent, they tend to reduplicate the squawks between trills. These are both totally different than the northern side of the continent where they lengthen the vowel on the squawk, a very unique feature.

So thank you once again to the University of Antarctica, both for your valuable work and your generous donation to our Fund Drive.

A graduate student of Linguistics at U of A involved in the project

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Saving Endangered Languages with Prescriptivism

Re-Printed from the Speculative Grammarian

Neil de Veratte
Director of Fieldwork Studies
Winter Academy of Language

All over the world, languages are being lost at an alarming rate. Field linguists do their best to preserve these languages, but find their speaker communities apathetic. “Why should I learn WotʃaKorlitt?” they ask, “It’s Spanish I need to get a job.” We need to look at successful languages, whose speakers are engaged with their language, to see what endangered languages can learn from them. When we do, we inevitably find that the most successful languages are those which possess a tradition of prescriptivist grammar. English has an army of armchair pedants who tell us all to never split an infinitive, that the passive should be avoided, and that prepositions must not be used to end a sentence with. French has the Academie Française to pronounce arbitrary bans on loanwords, and Spanish the Real Academia Española, which aims to ensure everybody talks like Cervantes. The Chinese are taught from an early age to regard all Sinitic languages as dialects of Mandarin.

…with prescriptivism?

All these languages were originally documented by their own speakers, who made up arbitrary rules to show off their own cleverness. The results are invigorating. Such rules are endlessly debated, denounced, defended and defied, and as a result, the speakers care about their language.

Contrast the situation with endangered languages. These are documented by outsiders, schooled in the descriptivist method, and content to simply record what they find. Their work may result in a Bible translation, but that is as close to arbitrary commandments as they’re likely to get.

A new approach is necessary. Fieldworkers should no longer passively describe a language. They must set out to create new rules for the language, so as to stimulate the debate that keeps a language alive. As such rules must be internally unmotivated, the researcher needs to think carefully about where to obtain them. A good strategy is to copy rules from a language that the speaker community considers prestigious, as English pedants do with Latin. In South America, Spanish or Portuguese would be the first choice, although it may be wise to base rules on the European form of the language rather than the local one. This approach has two advantagesthose who accept the new rule will see it as conferring the prestige of the dominant language on their own, whereas those who reject it will see the dominant language as tainted by association with the hated rule.

Other researchers may prefer to manufacture rules based on theoretical considerations. This raises the question of which framework to use for the purpose. On one level, it makes little difference, as they will all be equally incomprehensible to the speaker community, but I would recommend Metasyntactic Heuristics, since it is now understood only by two aging academics in remote English universities, and they haven’t spoken to each other for 25 years.

Our fieldworkers are now reporting back from the first trials of this method. We are still analysing their findings, but one has reported spectacular results from convincing an Amazonian tribe that they are not allowed to discuss abstract concepts.



This article was originally printed in SpecGram Vol. CLXXII, No. 4

Thanks for reading this special LINGUIST List announcement of this important April 1st news article re-printed with permission from the Speculative Grammarian. Check out SpecGram at

In seriousness, the LINGUIST List devotes countless hours to helping out the global linguistics community by managing thousands of announcements for journals, tables of contents, new book publications, reviews, jobs, internships, calls for papers, and conferences. We are managed by a small group of graduate students who work hard to provide these services. We rely on your donations to keep ourselves afloat! At this time we are at only 17% of our goal. If you use the LINGUIST List’s numerous services, please consider donating!

The Importance of Tech in Language Revitalization

Hello all,

For our second fund drive blog post I wanted to continue talking about the impact and importance of technology in language revitalization. In our previous post, Becca talked about a specific project with Hakha Chin (Laiholh). Here, I want to generalize a little bit and talk about why I think projects like that are so important.

The most obvious place technology can help in language revitalization is teaching and data collection applications, such as Duolingo. If nothing else, apps like these open the door to multilingualism, especially in America where learning even a second language is not nearly as common as I think it should be. Common Voice is at the other side of that with data collection, and you can read about that more in Becca’s post if you’d like. But these aren’t really the kind of applications I’m talking about here, I want to go deeper and look at language technology.

One big example of what I’m thinking of, and a very important one, are speech to text and text to speech systems.

Amazon’s Alexa, a voice activated tool

This is the technology behind Siri, Google, Alexa, and Cortana. As a native English speaker, I am incredibly privileged to have some of the best language tech at my fingertips because so much work has been done on English already. And while there may still be a long ways to go before we have anything resembling a true Artificial Intelligence, it’s easy to gloss over how big a difference there still is between English and less resourced languages.

This also illustrates a theoretical situation which may contribute directly to the extinction of languages. Any time someone wants to use their phone or other voice activated device and it is not in their native language, they must switch to a language that is available. Any multilingual speaker can tell you that switching languages takes a lot of cognitive effort, as I will personally attest to. Our brains just don’t want to. How often do you use your phone? If you’re like me, or pretty much anyone else in my generation, the answer is a LOT. Too much, really. And incorporating language technology is only getting more and more prevalent. So if you’re a speaker of a language that isn’t available on your tech, at what point do you just stop speaking your native language and just switch to the more common one you’re pretty proficient at?

In the tech industry we make a big deal about “User Experience” and “Accessibility”, which are definitely a good thing, but carry a cost if any aspect is ignored. My point is this: it’s not enough to just teach a language and make language learning resources available. In order to truly revitalize a language, it needs to be available in all aspects of life, and the growing amount of technology used on a day to day basis is a critical point. The good news is that people are working on it. Under Resourced Languages are gaining popularity and even companies are recognizing this, see again Mozilla’s Common Voice. Machine learning methods are being worked on which aim to reduce the amount of data needed to make them effective, opening them up to these smaller languages.

If you appreciate services provided by the LINGUIST List like book and job announcements, please consider donating to our annual fund drive campaign. We rely on your donations to continue operating and supporting our editors.

If you’ve already donated or just donated, thank you, we appreciate it.

Creating Resources for Under-Represented Languages: Hakha Chin

Dear LINGUIST List readers and subscribers,

The theme for this year’s Fund Drive is Language Documentation and Revitalization, because of this year’s theme, I would like to tell you about some of the work that I am involved with at Indiana University in addition to working at The LINGUIST List. I am a Computational Linguistics PhD student here at and as part of my work as a graduate student I am involved with a language documentation project: building documentary materials and computational tools for Hakha Chin. It should be noted that The LINGUIST List is not affiliated with this project, rather it is work that I am doing as a student while also working at The LINGUIST List.

Hakha Chin (Laiholh) is a language spoken in Myanmar/Burma with roughly 165,000 speakers, and there are more than 23,000 Burmese refugees who call Indiana home with nearly 17,000 residing in Indianapolis. Last year Hakha Chin was the language that was studied in the field methods classes taught by Dr. Kelly Berkson. Since there are not many resources available for Hakha Chin, the motivation behind this project is simple: having access to information in your native language is not a privilege, but a right. This motivation has lead to projects like using Mozilla Common Voice for Hakha Chin.

This is a screenshot of the Common Voice homepage illustrating the idea behind their system.

Mozilla Common Voice is a project whose aim is to “help make voice recognition open and accessible to everyone”. They do this by having users donate their voice and by listening to validate other submissions. Follow this link to see the page for Hakha Chin.

Here is a screenshot of what Common Voice looks like for Hakha Chin.

The Hakha Chin Common Voice Project has gotten very popular among the Hakha Chin speaking community. Mentions of this project have appeared on the Travel Myanmar YouTube channel and on the Chin Cable Network. Below you can see our very own Dr. Berkson discussing the work that is being done with Hakha Chin on the Travel Myanmar YouTube channel.

There is a lot of work revolving around Hakha Chin at IU at the moment, and there are multiple graduate students, myself included, working on this language. For example, I am working on creating a Universal Dependencies treebank so that I can work on Dependency Parsing for Hakha Chin.

To see some other cool things that are happening in the world of Language Revitalization and Documentation be sure to check back on our blog and social media pages, but most importantly, visit our Fund Drive page – it is here where you can learn more about us and make a donation. Thank you for your continued support.


Becca Morris, on behalf of The LINGUIST List Team