Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Room: DSB B105
Speaker: Dr. Nicholas Welch, Post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Ivona Kučerová’s Syntax Lab, McMaster University
Title: Linguistic fieldwork on threatened languages
Language endangerment and revitalization are much in the news of late. The critical state of thousands of the world’s languages raises significant practical, political and ethical questions for field linguists. Given that a trained linguist can be a valuable resource for the revitalization of a language under threat, are we justified in investigating purely theoretical issues rather than devoting ourselves full-time to language preservation? To what degree does independent linguistic research aid a language community, and to what degree is it a species of neo-colonial paternalism? If, as has been postulated, all human languages share certain fundamental architectural properties, what can the study of a small language bring to the investigation of these properties? How can one do effective research on a language with extremely few speakers?
I will discuss these issues and others, and conclude that study of endangered or neglected languages can have profound impact on the field of linguistics as a whole and on our understanding of the possible properties of human language, that responsible field linguistics entails devoting time and effort both to theoretical questions and to language preservation, and that these goals are best achieved by working closely with speakers and communities in a framework where the needs of the community are key drivers of the research agenda. Furthermore, this framework can make the work of the linguist significantly easier and has the potential to open lines of investigation that might otherwise be overlooked.