Paper presented at the workshop on
Web-Based Language Documentation and Description
12-15 December 2000, Philadelphia, USA.
Abstract.Although the communities that make up or represent the native speakers of a language constitute potential users of a language database, they have concerns that go beyond those of a typical user. This paper outlines some of those concerns that have come to my attention as president of the Endangered Language Fund (ELF). These include making it possible to download material easily into non-web formats; being able to place restrictions on who can access certain texts; and sharing in any tangible benefits that arise from their language material.
The inclusion of language data on the web is a development that is essential to moving the internet from promise to utility. It will revolutionize the practice of linguistics, and it may help to maintain some of the 3,000 or more languages that face extinction. While no language that exists on solely in recorded material can be said to have been saved, languages that have access to a large volume of primary material on the web may turn out to be more robust than those that lack it. Since we are at the beginning of the process of making the material available, it is too early to tell whether the web will have a significant impact .
It is not unrealistic that some language communities will be able to make use of web resources. In North America, the region that is easiest for me to assess since that is where I am located, the number of Native American tribes with web pages is growing steadily. It is more difficult to assess whether this translates into widespread access within the tribe itself, especially in the case of the elders who may have fewer opportunities and less desire to use it. But the expectation remains that those tribes that have a web presence will be able to make use of web resources in some way. About half of the 50 sites that contain language information on North American languages in Buszard-Welcher's survey are maintained by a tribal or tribal affiliate organization. This percentage is likely to grow as the usefulness of the sites is established and the burden is recognized as generally too great for an individual to bear.
Although I do not represent any community of native speakers, I have benefited from discussions of the issues with members of the Board of Directors of the ELF, namely Melissa Fawcett of Mohegan Tribe, Durbin Feeling of the Cherokee Nation, Rebecca Bending, a Nez Perce speaker, and Gay Story Hamilton, Chair of the Council of Elders of the Mohegan Tribe. Their input, along with the descriptions of concerns and strategies that have been embodied in the grant proposals that we have read over the last four years, has left me feeling that I could present some of those concerns for this audience.
First, getting that information off of the web should not be totally dependent on the web. That may sound contradictory, but what I mean is this: It should not be necessary for everyone who wants to make use of the data to have to be logged on in order to use it. It should be possible to easily create audio tapes of spoken material or printed versions of written material to share with those who do not have ready access to the site itself. While I have been placing this in terms of those tribes whose members have at least some access to the web, this requirement is even more important for those native speaker communities that lack web access altogether. If it is at least possible for someone from a different group (even members of the tribes of linguists or anthropologists!) to make the material available in a form that is usable, the web can provide a benefit even to those who lack direct access.
Second, the language material is often of a very public nature and thus can be freely accessed by everyone, but there are many other language documents that are more restricted and the access to those documents should be appropriately limited. The language archives that have been set up in Vanuatu are instructive here (Tryon, 1999): There are many texts that should only be learned by a direct descendant of the speaker, and yet the transmission of the language has been imperiled. The solution has been to record the text and to place such restrictions on its access that only direct descendants can have access to it. This is far easier to accomplish in a library setting, where a special "tabu room" has been set up, than it is on the web, but the goal of keeping access limited in some cases must be pursued. Many native communities find it distressing that anyone in the world with a computer and an internet account can look at their material. The linguist's job is to make this a less alien concept and to highlight the benefits that it can have. First, casual language learners have often turned into devoted advocates for a language. Second, many people who speak endangered languages have ended up far from their original homes, and they will have a chance of reconnecting with the original speakers if they find material on the web. Finally, the material that is on the web is of use not just to those who speak that particular language but also for those who speak related languages. Those engaged in work on those languages will often find it useful to compare constructions, etc., in the related languages, which in turn can lead to further work on the original language.
Native communities are unwilling to have others continue to profit at their expense, so tangible rewards should be shared with the native community. The tendency of linguists to collect data and then disappear has led to a reluctance on the part of many communities to be further involved in linguistic work. Many linguists have been shocked to learn that their "informants" believed that the linguists had gotten rich off of the language work that the speakers had made possible. But even a non-tenured job at a second-tier university can generate more income than many native speakers will see in a lifetime. With present linguistic databases, it does not appear that there will be any direct income generated. But if this changes, the native communities will want to share that income. This issue is tied up with the general issue of intellectual property rights. While too large an issue to address in this paper, we should not let it slip too far into the background.
Perhaps the easiest way to accomplish this goal is for native speakers to become the linguists. This is not always an option, and it would be inappropriate to exclude nonnative speakers from the outset. Yet there needs to be a set of compromises that satisfies both the language communities and those who would like to study the language for other purposes, so that the web can be a benefit to all, rather than a source of aggravation for one group or the other.
Buszard-Welcher, L. (2000). Can the web help save my language? Available: http://www.potawatomilang.org/Reference/endlgsweb4.htm.
Tryon, D. (1999). Ni-Vanuatu research and researchers. Oceania, 70, 9-16.