Research Articles

Ethnographically informed language documentation

  • K. David Harrison


Documentary linguistics (DL) is rapidly gaining recognition as a fully-fledged sub-field of linguistics, on a par with the theoretical subfields in its complexity, the intellectual effort required, and its significance to science. There is also a very active discussion going on among practitioners about core principles of the discipline, how it is best practised and taught. We can predict somewhat optimistically that we will soon see DL (not simply field methods) taught in the curriculum of university departments, practised by a larger percentage of post-graduate students, and accepted as dissertation work. At the same time as DL is being restored to its proper place at the core of the discipline, it is also being redefined and contested (Himmelman 1998, Woodbury 2004). There are ongoing discussions of methods, best practice, technical standards, and the ethics of data access and community ownership.

In this paper, I discuss one important dimension of language documentation – the inclusion of ethnographic methods. I advocate a restored balance between structuralist concerns and attention to cultural content of speech. An ethnographically informed approach is essential, I argue, to adequate language documentation. I provide several examples of this, based on my fieldwork on endangered languages in Siberia and Mongolia.

Keywords: documentary linguistics, core principles, ethnographic methods, structuralism, cultural content, language documentation, endangered languages, fieldwork

How to Cite:

Harrison, K., (2014) “Ethnographically informed language documentation”, Language Documentation and Description 3, 22-41. doi:

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Published on
31 Jul 2014
Peer Reviewed