Research Articles

Genre, register and language documentation in literate and preliterate communities

  • William A. Foley


One of the central questions posed by the papers in is volume is: ‘how does language documentation differ from language description?’ The main point of this paper is to take issue with such a rigid Saussurean dichotomy and to argue further that setting up the distinction in just this way is a reflection of linguistics’ own, and largely unacknowledged (but see Harris 1980), Western ideology of language, as reflected in its cultural practices of normative dictionaries and reference grammars. i.e. a set of elements and a set of rules à la the Himmelmann (1998: 166) quote above. These cultural practices are largely, as Harris (1980) points out, the result of the rise of vernacular literacy movements in Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so that scientific thinking about language in linguistics is very much an artifact of its practitioners’ own literate practices and the centuries long tradition of literacy which has preceded them. Literacy leads to the construction of powerful normative pressures in a number of areas: not only are prescriptive cultural products like grammars and dictionaries highly valued, but also the end products of literacy, literate texts, are given greater weighting over oral speech acts.

Keywords: language documentation, genre, register, literacy, preliterate communities, culture, normativity, biases

How to Cite:

Foley, W., (2014) “Genre, register and language documentation in literate and preliterate communities”, Language Documentation and Description 1, 85-98. doi:

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Published on
31 Jul 2014
Peer Reviewed