the quest for meaning in language documentation n.
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The quest for meaning in language documentation. Felix Ameka. Quest for meaning. The essence of linguistics is the quest for meaning (Whorf 1956)

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The quest for meaning in language documentation

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quest for meaning
Quest for meaning
  • The essence of linguistics is the quest for meaning (Whorf 1956)
  • A central task in documenting any spoken language is to map the structures and processes-grammatical, lexical, prosodic and pragmatic-by which speakers infer meaning from sound, and produce sound to express meaning. (Evans and Sasse 2007: 59)
bolinger on meaning
Bolinger on meaning
  • Meaning is an extremely ill-assorted fellow, you can hardly invite him to your home without inviting one or more of his drunken friends
  • (Bolinger in Aspects of Language 1965)
some drunken friends
Some “drunken friends”
  • Literal meanings
  • Idioms
  • Metaphor
  • Metonymy
  • Flexible meanings
  • Polysemy, heterosemy, homonymy
  • Scientific vs. folk knowledge
  • Translation equivalents etc.
semantics in field situations
Semantics in field situations

Translations and glosses are equated with meaning

The contributions of other elements in the context such as the semantics of grammatical constructions are not taken into consideration

On-line interpretations in context are taken to be senses

semantics in field situations 2
Semantics in field situations (2)

Dimmendaal (1995:19):

For any fieldwork situation, there is a fundamental problem in getting at the meaning of utterances or lexical items in a language …

translations meanings 1
Translations, Meanings (1)

Approaches to lexical semantics e.g. in dictionary work often rely on denotational overlap with English words (or any other language into which terms are translated) to establish the meanings of lexemes.

translations meanings 2
Translations, Meanings (2)
  • Glosses often reflect an informant’s satisfaction that the investigator has learned an approximate meaning, but this may still be different from a correct definition of what a particular term actually refers to in the language under investigation.
translations meanings 3
Translations, Meanings (3)

Minimally in linguistic documentation, one should provide translations of words and sentences of the language being documented into a language of wider communication backed up by definitions of individual words and morphemes in some sort of bilingual dictionary. In the West African multilingual context, we should not shy away from providing glosses in local lingua franca as well as the official languages of English and French.

  • When we work on a language through the filter of a language of elicitation, many semantic categories may be reshaped
  • Some semantic distinctions made in a language can also be lost.
  • In multilingual context where speakers have knowledge of both the language of elicitation and the endangered language, various processes of calquing, replacing of categories may occur
  • Literal vs culturally appropriate translations is another matter
how to minimise these effects
How to minimise these effects
  • Reduce the reliance on translation
  • Though inevitable, beware of glosses and do not assume that glosses translations etc represent the meanings of the signs in the language
  • Adopt methods that do not prompt for translations
folk definitions 1
Folk definitions (1)
  • Work with folk definitions in the language which will generate different kinds of texts as well as analytic clues

Ask in the language for the consultant to explain a term or describe the object a word stands for to a child, giving as much information as possible

Eg. A fish name or term

folk definitions 2
Folk definitions (2)
  • Such definitions are structured in some way and which give you clues about the knbowledge structures of words and can in turn give you clues about how to structure your definitions in a dictionary:
  • Category X is a (type of) Y
  • Physical properties / appearance (using different ‘adjective-like’ or property denoting terms


folk definitions 3
Folk definitions (3)
  • They give you the relations between the term and other terms
  • it is similar to Z,
  • it is not like Q
  • It has the same meaning as G etc.
  • Such folk definitions also provide culturally rich information, e.g. taboos, rituals associated with the term (fish)
non verbal stimuli
Non-verbal stimuli
  • Use non-verbal stimuli
  • Pictures
  • Drawings
  • Video clips
  • Staged demonstrations etc etc.