On 15th October 2013 Emeritus Professor Paul Newman gave a seminar presentation at SOAS, University of London, entitled “The Law of Unintended Consequences: How the Endangered Languages Movement Undermines Field Linguistics as a Scientific Enterprise”. In the talk he argues that:
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.
The seminar raised various issues that aroused vigorous discussion at the time, and led to a long blog post on EL Blog by Douglas H. Whalen (reproduced here) that contains important points about research on endangered languages that remain relevant today.
Watch the seminar on YouTube: