Research Articles

Searching for meaning in the library of Babel: field semantics and problems of digital archiving

  • Nick Evans
  • Hans-Jürgen Sasse


DalabonThis paper ... is about why the optimism about ever more accurate ‘capturing’ of speech events that flows from recent technological advances in sound recording cannot be transferred to the realm of meaning, and why the search for meaning in any language is best seen as a never-ending stringing together of hypertextual commentary, which gradually leads to a better understanding of the utterances under study. The asymmetry of sound and meaning in the documentation process is an obvious point and in no way original, but recognizing it clearly has important consequences for how the process of linguistic archiving is organised, so as to set in train the complex and slowly unfolding process by which linguists, and others concerned with documenting little-studied and fragile languages, gradually become able to give meaning to the speech sounds we record.

Our paper is organised as follows. Firstly, in §2, we elaborate on the asymmetry of the linguistic sign, and survey the growing range of techniques that helps us bring meaning directly into what we document. In §3 we illustrate the difficulties involved by examining part of the process of recording, analysing and translating a traditional story in Dalabon, an indigenous and little-documented language of...

Keywords: field semantics, digital archiving, technology, meaning, hypertext, language documentation, linguistic sign, interpretation, textual commentary

How to Cite:

Evans, N. & Sasse, H., (2014) “Searching for meaning in the library of Babel: field semantics and problems of digital archiving”, Language Documentation and Description 4, 58-99. doi:

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Published on
31 Jul 2014
Peer Reviewed