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New Language Documentation Challenges Linguistic Theory

NSF Award:

Xinkan, Pipil and Mocho: Bringing Three Endangered Language Documentation Projects to Completion  (University of Utah)

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Over half of the world's 7,000 languages are likely to fall silent this century, taking with them important linguistic and cultural information.  To address this pressing issue, NSF has created a new funding program, "Documenting Endangered Languages," to help record these rare and often unusual languages.  A 2005 project established a large team to document a range of languages in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.  The team wrote grammars and dictionaries and completed extensive recordings (audio and video) of oral traditions, songs and speaking. Led by Lyle Campbell of the University of Utah, the team found several rare and one apparently unique pattern, redefining what we think of as a possible human language.

The scientific findings of this team provide particularly significant theoretical evidence about human languages. For example, one language the team studied, Xinkan, allows only certain vowels to occur together within a word.  This kind of restriction, called "vowel harmony," is fairly common, but in Xinkan, there is a pattern not found elsewhere:  two of the three high vowels (i, u) cannot occur with mid vowels (e, o), and a can occur with any vowel.  Though this pattern is fairly common, the fact that the other high vowel (barred "i", like a u without rounded lips) only occurs with other instances of barred "i" is not. Current linguistic theories do not encompass such an unusual pattern. 

Some of the work also recovers efforts of earlier researchers. For example, the only colonial grammar of Pipil has been edited, and will soon be published in El Salvador. Both linguistic science and the local communities will be able to make use of the extensive documentation generated by this project.

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