Describing Language

Last summer, I had the privilege of taking a field methods class at CoLang (Institute for Collaborative Language Research) at the University of Texas at Arlington and while I was there I had had many conversations with friends asking about what I’m doing. So, I would like to take this time to describe in a series of posts the processes involved in describing a language by describing what we did in this four week class. This will not be a complete description of the process but I hope it will provide enough information and references that if you, as a non- linguist, have questions you have an idea of what and who you should ask.  Aside from me, of course.

First, I want you to think about five situations in which you used language today. Who were you talking to? What, if anything, were you trying to accomplish? If you had been talking to different people, would you have said or done things differently? Did you use slang? Complete sentences? Were you joking or sarcastic?

The first language I used this morning was in a (rather one-sided) conversation with my cat. I told him at 5:30 this morning that I was sleeping. I said it in a full sentence and at a higher pitch than I would ever use to speak to an adult.

The most recent language I used (aside from what I’m typing now) was to order food at a restaurant. I said, “I would like…” and then I told the waitress would I wanted to eat. I used complete sentences sometimes but sometimes I used phrases (“ranch, on the side.”)

I talked to my Mom.  There were quick back and forths in the conversation where we only used phrases or incomplete sentences and we sometimes talked over each other.

I talked to myself while working on my homework for my class.  The class is in Spanish, so my conversation with myself was with mix of Spanish and English where English is subbed in when I either don’t have the Spanish vocabulary to describe to myself what I want to say or when my patience was stretched by my lack of fluency.

I had a conversation with a friend on Facebook Messenger.  The friend is another linguist and we used a lot of technical vocabulary to talk about a project we are working on together.  We also used a lot of emoji.

All of these times I used language today, I used different voice pitches, different vocabulary, different languages, different speeds and different types of sentences all to get the job of communicating with others done.  As a native speaker of English, I’ve grown up with access to all of these different ways of using the language and I can appropriately situate myself and my communication with that knowledge.  (I can also violate appropriateness conditions, if I choose to do so like when I’m being sarcastic.)  All native speakers of any language have access to these resources in their own language and they know how to be ironic and how to be funny and how to be (or not to be) rude. These things are part of what we know when we say we know a language. We know how to form sentences, we know how to make plurals, and we know how to use all of these technical skills to speak.

There isn’t a part of my life in which I can’t use English.  I use it at work.  I use it at home.  I use it with my family.  I use it with my friends.  I can use it with doctors and administrators and government officials.  I can use it to talk to strangers.  As a learner of another language, I don’t have the same set of skills in the other language, but I do have access to some of it and I do my best to exploit that.  When I couldn’t do something I wanted to do, I fell back onto my English.  And, if I want to know about English or Spanish, I can look up what I want to know.  There are books and websites about words and grammar.  If I want to know about the differences between the past and the present, I can look it up.  If I want to know more about how words are put together to make new words, I can look it up.  English and Spanish are both well documented (although, we still don’t know everything about either of them.)  And, there are vast bodies of academic literature about all of the moving parts of English and Spanish so I can look at that if I choose to, too.

But, for many of the world’s languages, that isn’t the case. Speakers might be able to use their language in their home and their village, but they might need to know another language to talk to government officials or to see (and understand) a doctor, for example.  Additionally, if they are interested in their language, they can’t go to library and check out books on it because those books don’t exist.  For some linguists, their entire job is documenting languages that have never been studied or have only been studied a little and to help create resources that speakers themselves can use. (For some linguists, like me, language provides a window into how the mind/brain works and also how groups of people work together. But, that’s a post for another day.)


This class that I am took focused on how to collect data to document an un(der)documented language.  In a series of post over the next couple of months I will discuss how we go about figuring out some of the parts of the language so that we could write preliminary sketches of those parts of the language.

twittergoogle_pluspinteresttumblrinstagramby feather
This entry was posted in Language and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.