Research Articles

Language documentation and linguistic theory

  • Peter Sells


This chapter is about the relationship between language documentation and linguistic theory. In this chapter I focus on that part of language documentation which is directed towards grammatical description of a language (‘compiling a grammar’) ... grammatical description presupposes some theory – even basic description involves organisation of the data into categories and parts, and underlyingly this must suppose some linguistic theory. Linguistic theory can help provide a context within which to present a grammatical description ... linguistic theory can and surely must be informed by more and better data (this is Chomsky’s point): this requires that the properties of the data that are fed into theory development are theoretically accurate ... a theoretical outlook can be useful, in the field and ‘at home’ – in terms of presentation of data to linguists, it is important to know what is theoretically interesting or relevant, what might be unusual, etc. Sensitivity to linguistic theory might invite language documenters to look for various phenomena in the language they are studying, without presupposing their necessary existence. So a theoretical outlook can be useful, in the field (in guiding work on the language) and also ‘at home’ (on return to the home institution).

Keywords: language documentation, linguistic theory, grammatical description, context, data, guidance

How to Cite:

Sells, P., (2010) “Language documentation and linguistic theory”, Language Documentation and Description 7, 209-237. doi:

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Published on
31 Jul 2010
Peer Reviewed