Research Articles

Dying to be counted: the commodification of endangered languages in documentary linguistics

  • Lise Dobrin
  • Peter K. Austin
  • David Nathan


The main way in which linguists have responded to the problem of language endangerment has been through a renewed commitment to the task of language documentation. But much of the critical discussion that has been generated by the issue of language endangerment has taken place outside mainstream linguistics, in the related but distinct field of linguistic anthropology. There the focus has been on analyzing the essentially moral discourse that frames language endangerment as a problem worthy of attention and action. But there are also areas within documentary linguistics which could benefit from a more critical approach. In particular, we argue that the discourse of documentary methods is characterised by an embrace of technology as an unquestioned goal, one that in some cases hinders rather than facilitates our thinking about the problems we are trying to solve. In this paper we try to understand, and hence begin to challenge, the social forces that lead documentary linguists to frame their work in the highly patterned ways that they do, even when these are in tension with their larger goals.

Keywords: language endangerment, documentary linguistics, language documentation, linguistic anthropology, discourse, technology, evaluation criteria, documentary research

How to Cite:

Dobrin, L., Austin, P. & Nathan, D., (2014) “Dying to be counted: the commodification of endangered languages in documentary linguistics”, Language Documentation and Description 6, 37-52. doi:

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Published on
31 Jul 2014
Peer Reviewed