Introduction to Language Documentation and Description

Key information

Start date
End date
Term 2
Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of Linguistics

Module overview

This module introduces students to the study of endangered, minority and less-described languages. It encourages critical discussion of theoretical, ideological, practical, and ethical factors in language documentation and description, and critically examines issues and problems that often arise when working in this field. Examples will be drawn from successes and failures in applications of linguistic techniques to practical language problems.

Students will study to development of documentary linguistics from fieldwork on a specific language to more collaborative and ecological approaches now favoured. They will also discuss a wide range of applied language matters such as developing an orthography for an unwritten language, making a dictionary, language maintenance and revitalisation, and helping to articulate language policy.

This module is CORE for students on the MA in Language Documentation and Description.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

The module aims to prepare students to work on documentation projects, with regard to both practical issues such as project planning, and ethical and ideological issues such as collaborative and interdisciplinary research and the role of an external linguist in language communities.

Critical evaluation of methods and practices is encouraged, focusing on the aims, audience, impact and outcomes of language documentation and description.


Total of 10 weeks teaching with 2 hours classroom contact per week consisting of a 1-hour lecture and a 1-hour seminar.

Scope and syllabus

Topics covered will include:

  • Introduction to language documentation

  • Decolonising fieldwork

  • Collaboration, ethics and interdisciplinarity

  • Language vitality

  • Language contact, variation and change in language endangerment

  • Orthography development

  • Lexicography and dictionary making

  • Texts and translation; verbal art and ethnopoetics

  • Documentation and language policy, planning and revitalisation

  • Evaluating documentation: The role of the linguist

Method of assessment

  • Evaluative case study, review or commentary (1000 words) (20%)
  • A project or essay (3000 words) (80%)

Suggested reading

  • Austin, P.K. and Sallabank, J. eds. (2011) Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bonvillain, Nancy (ed). 2016 . The Routledge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology . Oxford: Routledge.
  • Dorian, Nancy C. ed. 1989. Investigating Obsolescence: Studies in Language Contraction and Death . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gippert, Jost, Nikolaus Himmelmann and Ulrike Mosel (eds) 2006. Essentials of Language Documentation . Berlin: Mouton. pp 67-86.
  • Grenoble, Lenore A., and Whaley, Lindsay J. (eds.) 1998. Endangered Languages: Language Loss and Community Response . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Harrison, K. David. 2007. When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Miyaoka, Osahito, Sakiyama, Osamu, and Krauss, Michael E. eds. 2007. The Vanishing Languages of the Pacific Rim . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Nettle, Daniel and Suzanne Romaine 2000. Vanishing Voices . Oxford: OUP.
  • Thomason, Sarah G. 2015. Endangered Languages: An Introduction . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A full weekly reading list will be supplied at the start of the module.


Professor Julia Sallabank


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules