Documenting, Preserving and Sharing Global Linguistic Heritage (ELAR)
Submitting InstitutionSchool of Oriental & African Studies
Unit of AssessmentModern Languages and Linguistics
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Information and Computing Sciences: Information Systems
Language, Communication and Culture: Language Studies, Linguistics
Summary of the impact
There is a growing, global crisis of language endangerment: At least half
of the world's 7,000 languages are under threat. The Endangered Languages
Project at SOAS supports the multimedia documentation of as many
endangered languages as possible, drawing on research in the new field of
documentary linguistics. A component part of the project, the Endangered
Languages Archive (ELAR) preserves and makes available through managed
access 10 terabytes of material from 160 endangered languages projects to
date. It has benefitted a broad, international user base including
endangered language speakers and community members, language activists,
poets and others.
In response to the urgent need to document endangered languages, the new
discipline of Documentary Linguistics has emerged in the last fifteen
years. It takes advantage of developments in information, media and
communication technologies and is concerned with the theoretical,
methodological, technological and ethical frameworks for documentation,
preservation, support and dissemination of digital samples of endangered
languages and cultures. Documentary Linguistics also directly supports
endangered language speakers and communities by ensuring that outcomes are
useful for their language and heritage goals, through encouraging
collaboration, through respect for their rights in recorded materials, and
by providing managed access to materials that they consider private,
sacred or sensitive.
The development of the online Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR) at SOAS
occurred in parallel with the growth of Documentary Linguistics to which
Professor Peter Austin and David Nathan have contributed substantially.
The six publications listed below, dating from 2005, when ELAR was created
by them and their team, are representative of their many, often
foundational research outputs in the field, which treat both theoretical
and practical topics that have guided the development of ELAR.
Output a, for example, explores how language documentation materials can
be better described, discovered, and interpreted. Metadata records (which
categorise and describe electronic materials) when implemented in
traditional fixed, limited schemas are insufficient to provide the level
of contextualisation, understanding and access control needed for complex
and diverse materials. Austin and Nathan propose a broader approach to
metadata, enabling enhanced articulation of knowledge about the creation,
context and content of resources, to reflect the perspectives of various
participant and user groups, especially endangered language speakers. As a
result, ELAR supports a flexible, nuanced approach to metadata. Output f
extends this argumentation to apply to "metadocumentation" of the language
documentation process itself.
With the advent of Web 2.0 and social networking, Nathan investigated how
an archive can provide a platform for information-sharing relationships
between depositors, users, language speakers and others. ELAR implemented
such a platform in 2009. Output e of 2010 motivates and describes this
platform, proposing that social networking channels incorporated into ELAR
provide ways for users to access sensitive materials through negotiation
with depositors in conjunction with endangered language speakers.
Threaded through the underpinning research is the issue of access
protocol — the collection and implementation of information about
private/sensitive materials, necessary because language documentation
typically consists of recordings of spontaneous private conversations. As
one of the emerging archives for language documentation, ELAR had to deal
with the sensitivities associated with the private, personal, sacred or
other sensitive content of many archived recordings. ELAR was the first
archive to research the needs for access management and to implement them
using contemporary social networking architecture. ELAR's innovative
platform allows depositors and users to negotiate directly about access as
well as to share information about the archived languages, thus redefining
the archive as a platform for information-based relationships between
information providers and users. ELAR's unique system of graduated and
negotiated access safeguards the rights of language speakers and also
opens new exchange channels between those providing, and those wishing to
access, materials (see ELAR's access protocol http://www.elar-archive.org/using-elar/access-protocol.php)
Other themes directly relevant to the design and development of ELAR in
the underpinning research include:
- sustainability (ensuring long-term preservation and usability of
- maximising the quality of language documentation through informed
methodologies, enhanced skills, and understanding of equipment and
digital document technologies;
- progress towards enhanced metadata and "meta-documentation",
especially related to the goals, history, processes, methods, dynamics
and structures of language documentation projects.
References to the research
a. Nathan, David, and Peter K. Austin. 2005. "Reconceiving Metadata:
Language Documentation through Thick and Thin." In Language
Documentation and Description Vol 2, edited by Peter. K. Austin,
179-87. London: SOAS, 2005.
b. Austin, Peter K. "Data and Language Documentation." In Essentials
of Language Documentation, edited by Jost Gippert, Nikolaus
Himmelmann and Ulrike Mosel, 87-112. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2006.
c. Nathan, David. "Proficient, Permanent, or Pertinent: Aiming for
Sustainability." In Sustainable Data from Digital Sources: From
Creation to Archive and Back, edited by Linda Barwick and Tom
Honeyman, 57-68. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2006.
d. Nathan, David. "Digital Archives: Essential Elements in the Workflow
for Endangered Languages Documentation and Revitalisation." In Language
Documentation and Description, Vol. 5, edited by Peter K. Austin,
103-19. London: SOAS, 2008.
e. Nathan, David. "Archives 2.0 for Endangered Languages: from Disk Space
International Journal of Arts and Humanities Computing 4.1-2
f. Austin, Peter K. 2012. "Language Documentation and
Meta-documentation." In Keeping Languages Alive: Documentation,
Pedagogy and Revitalization, edited by Sarah Ogilvie and Mari Jones,
3-15. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Outputs b and c were submitted to the RAE 2008.
Output f is submitted in REF 2.
Details of the impact
ELAR was established through a £20-million sponsorship of the Endangered
Languages Project by Arcadia in 2002. This enabled research and practice
in documentary linguistics to provide direct benefit to a range of users
through the various activities of the archive. ELAR is not only part of
the forefront project to document and support endangered languages
worldwide, but is also an acknowledged leader in applying new media
technologies in support of the goals of language documentation (1, below).
ELAR's catalogue serves an average of over 400 unique visitors per day
with 1.4 million page-views per year. ELAR has a registered membership of
1,040 people from 85 countries, with membership increasing by about 5% per
month (2, 3). Along with linguists, professional members include a number
of anthropologists, archivists, and language teachers. In addition, a
growing number of language and culture enthusiasts use the archive. A
prominent example is the well-known New York-based poet Bob Holman who has
used ELAR in 2012 and 2013 to create Lost Wor(l)ds: an Endangered
Cento, a collage poem in which each line reproduces a single line of
poetry from one of the world's endangered languages (4, 5).
Holman learned of ELAR as a visitor to "Endangered Languages Week" (ELW)
at SOAS. Initiated by ELAR and the Endangered Languages Academic Programme
in 2007, the annual week-long series of outreach events — which includes
demonstrations, talks, performances and films — attracts hundreds of
participants and audience members (6).
Of ELAR's membership, endangered language community members
comprise 10%; for ELAR, such engagement of members of endangered language
communities is vital, both as documenters of their own languages and as
users of the archive. Eli Timan, a native speaker of the highly endangered
and now globally dispersed Jewish Iraqi dialect of Arabic, provides an
excellent example (7). Jews lived in Baghdad for more than 2,500 years and
by the early 20th century they comprised one-third of the city's
population. Of 137,000 Jews in Iraq in the 1940s, 124,000 had fled by 1952
as victims of persecution following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. When Timan
began documenting his native language in 2005, it was virtually a language
of the diaspora alone, with only 10 Jews remaining in Baghdad. The last
seven Jews in Iraq were named by Wikileaks in 2011, applying further
pressure on them to flee.
Having learned of the Endangered Languages Project from a newspaper
article, Timan visited SOAS in 2005, motivated to preserve his spoken
language and create oral documentation of the recent history of Iraqi
Jews. He took early retirement from a career in accountancy to visit
diaspora communities in the UK, Canada and Israel to record his language
and culture. Having successfully applied for funding, Peter Austin, David
Nathan and others provided training in historical linguistics, phonetics,
phonology, morphology, language revival, database management, and the use
of recording equipment and linguistic documentation software.
Timan writes: "My life has been transformed since then as I embarked on
my most important and interesting project." He has completed much of his
project, and has deposited 34 fully-documented stories and interviews in
the language with ELAR. He confirms the importance of this archived
material to his community and beyond:
"Other members of the community have commented favourably on the material
I deposited. They do not see it as a language project, but rather as a
"Living history project". Recently there has been a great interest in
"Iraqi Jews" from fellow Muslim Iraqis challenging the taboos of 35 years
of Saddam's reign where nothing about us was allowed to be published as we
were branded "Zionist spies". It may be that the archive will prove more
valuable to those Iraqi Muslims anxious to discover a vital element of
Iraq past history."
Crucial to Timan is the knowledge that his work is properly archived at
ELAR and will remain accessible regardless of changes in technology. He
has deposited materials with other Jewish Iraqi centres in the diaspora,
but because they lack technical expertise, that work remains inaccessible.
Endangered language community members who wish to reconnect with and
learn more about the languages their parents and older family members
spoke are also users of the archive. A poignant example of a request to
access materials documenting the language of the Wasco Native American
Indian tribe of Oregon state, who now number approximately 200, was
received in May 2013 (8):
"My name is G. My Uncles are N, H and J who are Wascos. Their Uncle was
the last fullblood Chief. As a young boy, I was taken fishing ... by a
tribal elder T who was (Wasco/Chinese) and he taught me Wasco ... I have
been gone away from home for the past 22 years ... only coming home for
funerals and vacations. I now live in Q and although I am closer to home,
I am not around anyone who speaks the language. Speaker C is a close
friend and she is one of the keepers of the Language along with K. I would
like to be able to access the language so I can practice what I have
forgotten and keep the language alive."
Sources to corroborate the impact
- ELAR website: http://elar-archive.org
[Most recently accessed 20.11.13].
- Selected collection statistics: http://www.elar-archive.org/about/statistics.php
[Most recently accessed 20.11.13].
- Data relating to ELAR user numbers supplied directly from ELAR's
server data. Usage reports can be made available upon request.
- Bob Holman, poet and endangered language enthusiast who has used ELAR.
- Link to description of the Endangered Language Cento project: http://citylore.org/grassroots-poetry/endangered-poetry-initiative/endangered-cento/
[Please copy and paste link into
browser] [Most recently accessed 20.11.13].
- Endangered Languages Week: www.hrelp.org/events
[Most recently accessed 20.11.13].
- Eli Timan, native speaker of the Jewish Iraqi language who has
deposited his own language documentation project materials and outputs
- Anonymised ELAR access request from member of the Wasco Native
American community, which can be provided upon request.