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A179, From Endangered Language Documentation to Phonetic Documentation
(Douglas H. Whalen, PI)

Research Goals. The goal of this grant is to provide initial phonetic documentation of three endangered languages while further establishing how much material is needed for documentation to be considered representative. A reconsideration of how to define categories in terms of distributions of realizations rather than their means will also be a result.

Current status: Funded for 10/1/2010 to 9/30/2013. Amount: $400,062. Source: NSF, DEL program.

The more detailed version:

Modern language documentation projects endeavor to obtain high quality audio recordings so that the material will be useful for phonetic analysis at a later point, but it is not clear how useful the material being collected will be. The present project will examine archival material in three languages to see how much material, and of what sort, is needed for phonetic description of a language. To do that, three languages will be studied: Tarahumara/Rarámuri [ISO 639 tar], Nahuatl of the Balsas valley of central Guerrero [ISO 639 ngu], and Arapaho [ISO 639 arp]. These each have extensive documentation in existence, and measurements from these sources will be examined for the statistical properties of the languages in question. In particular, the number of speakers and repetitions of items required to give an accurate view of a language's phonetic structure will be tested. New evidence from Arapaho, including acoustics and static palatography, will be used as a comparison. A sketch of the phonetics of the three languages will be produced, along with a deeper analysis of a small number of specific features. Recommendations for best practice will also be generated.

Endangered language documentation is of increasing value to both linguistic science and to indigenous communities. The phonetic aspects of a language are important for knowing how linguistic distinctions are made and for possible reconstruction by heritage learners. A transformative aspect of this research is the definition of phonetic norms not only for endangered language documentation but for documentation of any language; despite years of analysis, this issue has not been satisfactorily resolved. Finally, the project will provide training for students in language documentation and phonetic analysis.