Creating infrastructure for linguistic theory and endangered languages
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Surrey
Unit of AssessmentEnglish Language and Literature
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Language Studies, Linguistics
Summary of the impact
Global linguistic diversity is under threat; the theoretical and
descriptive work of the Surrey Morphology Group (SMG) raises public
awareness of linguistic diversity and produces traditional and digital
resources used and valued by communities where endangered languages are
There is growing recognition of the many reasons, scientific and social,
why the loss of linguistic diversity matters. Here we report on our impact
on different communities, focussing in particular on Archi, an endangered
language of the highlands of Daghestan (Russia). Our Dictionary of Archi,
with pictures of cultural artefacts, has changed perceptions of the
cultural and social value of this small language, both for the speakers of
Archi and for those of surrounding larger languages. In its digital
version, our dictionary has brought Archi into global awareness.
The Surrey Morphology Group (SMG) based at the University of Surrey
combines the investigation of grammatical categories in a broad sample of
languages with the use of explicit formal and statistical frameworks for
the expression of typological and theoretical generalizations.
A key area of our theoretical work is `possible words' and how morphology
relates to syntax. Particularly challenging areas include `agreement' and
`syncretism' (1). Our investigations of these two phenomena led to
cross-linguistic databases (http://www.smg.surrey.ac.uk)
and maps for the World Atlas of Language Structures (2) (also available at
http://wals.info/). Other projects fed
into this broader typological work. Languages were chosen primarily for
their theoretical interest, but we did not miss opportunities for
beneficial impact on the speaker communities.
In particular Surrey's research on the language of the Archi people and
the language of the Saanich community has not only extended the SMG's
research base but created real impact in the communities using these
Archi is a Daghestanian language of the Lezgic group spoken by about 1200
people in Daghestan. The language is characterised by a remarkable
morphological system, with extremely large paradigms, and irregularities
on all levels.
In 2007 the Surrey Morphology Group completed a three-year project which
resulted in an electronic Archi-Russian-English dictionary that has been
released in different formats. There is a 410 page printed book version
mainly for use by the Archi community, with entries in Archi, Russian and
English, and a web version with meta data in English, digital pictures of
cultural objects and .mp3 sound files for those interested in the
languages and cultures of the Caucasus. In addition there are two types of
DVD containing sound files for every word form of the lexeme (in.mp3 and
.wav format), digital pictures of culturally significant objects, idioms
and example sentences with interlinear glossing. Both DVD versions provide
morphological information sufficient to produce the whole paradigm of the
lexeme (4) (also available at http://www.smg.surrey.ac.uk/archi/linguists/).
SENĆOŦEN is the language of the Saanich First Nations community, from the
Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island, Canada, and neighbouring Gulf and
San Juan Islands. Along with five closely related Northern Straits
dialects, it belongs to the Salish language family (Central Salish
branch). The Northern Straits language is one of 32 indigeneous languages
of British Columbia. SENĆOŦEN is a highly endangered variety of Straits
From 2008 onwards Surrey researchers undertook linguistic fieldwork with
Saanich elders and shared examples and select recordings from this
fieldwork over the web. The examples are organised in a 3000-sentence
database with orthographic and phonemic transcriptions, interlinear
glossing and translations into English. Texts and associated recordings
are available for use by linguists as well as members of the Saanich
The work of the SMG on North West Solomonic further illustrates the
relationship between theoretical research and community impact. Key
aspects of the grammars of a representative sample of languages of
Northwest Solomonic were identified and made available online along with
associated audio materials and dictionaries.
References to the research
1. Baerman, Matthew, Dunstan Brown and Greville G. Corbett. 2005. The
syntax-morphology interface: a study of syncretism. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, xix + 281pp.
2. Baerman, Matthew, Dunstan Brown, and Greville G. Corbett. 2005. Five
chapters in total in: Martin Haspelmath, Matthew Dryer, David Gil and
Bernard Comrie (eds) World atlas of language structures. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
3. Corbett, Greville G. 2006. Agreement. Cambridge: Cambridge
4. Chumakina, Marina, Dunstan Brown, Greville G. Corbett and Harley
Quilliam. 2008. Archi: A dictionary of the language of the Archi
People, Daghestan, Caucasus, with sounds and pictures
5. Corbett, Greville G. 2012. Features. Cambridge: Cambridge
6. Chumakina, Marina & Greville G. Corbett. (editors) 2013. Periphrasis:
The role of syntax and morphology in paradigms. Oxford: British
Academy and Oxford University Press.
Details of the impact
Surrey's research on the Archi dictionary and the lexical database of
SENĆOŦEN were designed with specific community outcomes in mind. The
positive effect on the language communities these projects have had will
contribute to the cultural enrichment through preservation of cultural
Researchers at Surrey identified that the Archi community members would
benefit from a Cyrillic-based orthography rather than the standard
IPA-based orthography, and therefore produced a dictionary that would
better suit their needs. This has had a major impact on the Archi
community, for the first time they have Archi written in a familiar
orthography: the languages of instruction at school are Avar and Russian,
both of which use Cyrillic. They now have a dictionary where words for
culturally salient artefacts are supplied with pictures. The dictionary
registers irregular word forms which are being ousted by regular forms,
and provides all the essential morphological information for each word,
such as grammatical gender, a feature that young urban speakers of Archi
have problems in mastering (their other main languages, Avar and Russian,
have the system of three genders, whereas Archi has four).
The result is the first trilingual digital dictionary of a Daghestanian
language, raising awareness of Archi both within Daghestan and throughout
the world (c, d, e). At a local level, the orthography created has been
used by some speakers to write stories in Archi for the first time.
Similarly the project on SENĆOŦEN makes recordings available to a wider
audience. We provide transcriptions of recorded dialogues and a
3000-sentence database with orthographic and phonemic transcriptions,
interlinear glossing and translations into English. The database also
contains lists of verbs and verb roots linked to the sentences and is
tagged for grammatical features using standard linguistic terminology. The
recordings and database provide members of the SENĆOŦEN speech community
with the chance to read and listen to their ancestral language from the
mouths of fluent speakers, and provide linguists with the opportunity to
explore this typologically interesting language.
For speaker communities we can identify two specific kinds of impact:
community skills development and cultural enrichment. For the broader
public our work has involved cultural enrichment by production of
materials for schools, and through wider dissemination to non-specialist
Community skills development
- The community uses the new practical orthography developed for Archi
by the SMG and its collaborators. This was achieved as part of a
community event in June 2007, when the school and key members of the
community were presented with copies of the dictionary.
- Influential members of the Archi community have learnt how to use both
basic software and the specialized Sound Forge software, for editing
- The lexical database for SENĆOŦEN resulted from a project which ran
during 2011. It was presented to community members on Vancouver Island
in November 2011 and was well received with positive feedback in
relation to language revitalization (a).
Community cultural enrichment
- Our work on Archi has raised the esteem felt by the speakers,
reinforcing their enthusiasm for their language (c).
- Work on North West Solomonic was particularly welcomed by the local
community, as demonstrated by the letter from the Rorovana Joint Council
of Chiefs (b).
Public cultural enrichment
Complementing this work abroad we have promoted the understanding of
typology in the UK education system, by producing materials on the topic
for schools (see http://lagb-education.org/lagb-education-sessions ).
Several years of theoretical work provided the essential base for our
field research on endangered languages, including Archi, North-West
Solomonic and SENĆOŦEN, complemented by a sustained relationship with the
Speaker communities have benefited by improvements to community skills
development and cultural enrichment. Complementing this community work,
the University of Surrey has promoted the understanding of typology in the
UK education system, by producing materials on the topic for schools.
Sources to corroborate the impact
By its nature, the impact of this work is bottom up. Minority communities
rarely appear in the global media. Nevertheless, the evidence of impact is
apparent in a range of sources, from individual letters and views of a
particular teacher up to newspaper articles.
At the community level:
a) letter from a SENĆOŦEN community representative, 23 July 2012
b) letter from the Rorovana Joint Council of Chiefs, 6 February 2007
c) Teacher in the Archi village school (Contact details provided)
Evidence of impact on the broader public, in the region of investigation
and within the UK and internationally, is seen in the following
d) Article in the Russian magazine Russkij reporter (with a print
run of 90 000 copies per week) which talks about Archi:Ольга Андреева, Сколько языков знает Россия: “Русский репортер” №9 (39), 2008.
[Olga Andreeva, How many languages Russia speaks], http://expert.ru/russian_reporter/2008/09/yazyki_rossii/
e) Article in the Avar newspaper Charada:АхIмад Шабанов, Англиядаса ГIалимчужу Арчий, ЧIарада, 19 июль 2008 [A. Shabanov, A
researcher from England comes to Archi]
f) Reviews of WALS in newspapers: e.g. the Guardian (2 Aug 2005) and the
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung