SOAS University of London

Department of Linguistics, School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics

The Law of Unintended Consequences: How the Endangered Languages Movement Undermines Field Linguistics as a Scientific Enterprise.

Prof Paul Newman, Indiana University

Date: 15 October 2013Time: 3:30 PM

Finishes: 15 October 2013Time: 5:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: KLT

Type of Event: 0

Following a long period in which formal theory dominated the discipline of linguistics, the endangered languages movement has revived and stimulated a keen interest in language description and empirical field research. This has been a wonderfully positive development. However, naïve ideology has led to a plethora of dubious assumptions regarding linguistic fieldwork. These assumptions, which have been accepted at face value without serious question, concern (a) the choice of language to be studied, i.e., it is better to study a small undescribed language than a larger one; (b) the object of the research, i.e., it is better to study a language in its entirety (including its associated culture) rather than focus on specific linguistic phenomena; and (c) the methodological approach to field research, i.e., it is better to collect large quantities of raw data by means of “documentary linguistics” rather than devote time in the field to analyzing materials or testing theories. The purpose of my talk is to challenge these assumptions and show how practices emanating from the endangered languages movement run counter to the tenets of linguistics as a science. I close with constructive suggestions on how to carry out endangered languages field research in a scientifically sound and productive manner.



Paul Newman is regarded as the world’s foremost authority on the Hausa language. His academic career has included positions at Yale University, Bayero University (Kano, Nigeria), Rijksuniversiteit te Leiden (The Netherlands), University of Michigan, and Indiana University, where he holds the title of Distinguished Professor. He has had short-term appointments as Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford) and the Centre for Linguistic Typology at the  Australian National University (Canberra), as Visiting Professor of African Studies at the University of Bayreuth (Germany), and as Fulbright Specialist in Law at the University of Haifa (Israel).

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