A Chinese friend doing archaeological work once asked me, ‘Have you heard about Victor Segalen?’ (謝閣蘭) And then, ‘What do you think about him?’
Before our discussion, my impression was positive. I liked Segalen’s literary works; and I believed that Segalen was equally serious about exploring China. Unlike others, he learnt some Chinese; and he went to faraway places, (re-)discovering major archaeological sites. His style of writing is decidedly on the romantic, passionate side, lacking the kind of matter-of-fact information that is required for serious scholarship, but poetic licence seemed OK on the part of an explorer from the last years of Imperial China. There are some obnoxious colonial overtones in some of his writings, but that too seemed OK if viewed in the context of his time.
My Chinese friend’s perception was different. As an archaeologist, he pointed out that Segalen had unearthed sculptures, taken pictures, and gone his own sweet way, leaving ancient art objects exposed to the elements and to depredation, without even reporting their location in sufficient detail. That was an eye-opener for me. Inspired literary works cannot serve as an excuse for leaving a mess behind. As an archaeologist, Victor Segalen simply did not do a serious job. When in a foreign country, one is seen, willy-nilly, as a representative of one’s own country; and so Segalen gave a bad name to foreign scholars in China.
The morality for linguists is simple. When we go and collect data, beyond our immediate interests it’s important to think in terms of stable repositories that guarantee long-term conservation and online availability for researchers and for the communities.
In-depth language documentation is clearly a priority duty for linguists of our generation. This is what will remain as our most important legacy. It is also a major driving force for real advances in linguistics, as multimedia digital databases open up a tremendous potential for testing linguistic analyses and building computer models: a huge space opens up once we have a reliable, high-quality empirical basis for our studies.
This point has been made eloquently in various forums; it can now be considered a rather uncontroversial point of view. Realizations tend to lag behind somewhat, though. In addition to personal conviction, institutional recognition is required for academics to invest as much time as they should (and in many cases would like to) into the time-consuming tasks of preparing data for long-term preservation, online circulation, and further computer processing. There has been a vivid discussion about publications and publication venues on the Internet list « Issues and Announcements Related to Tibeto-Burman Linguistics » lately (Tibeto-Burman internet domain). Stephen Morey pointed out that:
« Here in Australia, the Australian Linguistics Society has set up a subcommittee to work out ways by which text corpora – annotated, analysed and curated – can be assessed and counted as research output just as articles in journals are. This follows on the recognition of the scholarly merit of Language Documentation by the Linguistics Society of America in 2010.
Once academics can get credit for this kind of work, we’ll be able to put more time into it and this will be of benefit to communities in the long run as well. »
This was a response to Guillaume’s suggestion: « I think that our community should value more the production of dictionaries and text collections including translations in the local national languages, not just in English (or even only in the local languages, without English), even if this kind of publication never get cited. Citation-based evaluation of academic productivity has a highly detrimental effect on the field, and evaluators should really make a special case for non-English publications intended for speakers of the endangered languages. »
To me, the exchanges over the Tibeto-Burman list conveyed a keen sense of the excitement of doing linguistics on under-resourced languages. This is an era for pioneers, and the frontier is… in our own gardens, which we must cultivate, following the motto of the Pangloss Collection! The framework is in place: long-term archiving and stable identifiers; open archives for consultation; CreativeCommons licenses… and it’s now a matter of getting one’s act together. In the long run this is well-invested time and effort, as the hours, days and months of manual weeding, pruning and trimming make for great documents, which always find an appreciative audience at some point.
Cite this article as: Alexis Michaud, "Incentives for publishing text corpora and multimedia documents: About a recent discussion on the Tibeto-Burman list," in Science ouverte : enjeux et méthodes en sciences humaines et sociales. (À l'origine, carnet d'un projet concernant des corpus himalayens.)
, 09/04/2013, https://himalco.hypotheses.org/48
These days, the project team is busy finalizing administrative issues. One slight difficulty is that the funding agency, the Agence Nationale de la Recherche, does not have a separate category for exploratory field trips: trips to the areas where the languages we study are spoken, and where we collect the data which is then organized, made available online (in the Pangloss Collection) and analyzed. In the budget documents, they are pooled together with the budget items for attending conferences, workshops… As a result, linguistics project with a fieldwork component look pretty strange from the point of view of current administrative/accounting standards. It looks as if too much money were spent on international travel.
This administrative episode gives us an opportunity to emphasize the specificity of exploratory field trips, which are central to our work. Fortunately, the people at ANR are open to suggestions and interested in understanding how our work is actually conducted, so the odds are that we shall be able to carry out numerous field trips, as originally planned. Who knows–perhaps exploratory field trips will even come to be recognized as a special category of « mission » in administrative typology? At some research centres with a strong tradition of fieldwork, such as LACITO, the two (« Conferences/Workshops » and « Fieldwork ») are already distinguished, as a matter of course.
This project proposes to build parallel corpora for three sub-groups of the Sino-Tibetan family, covering a total of 8 little-described oral languages. These corpora will be made up of texts and lexical data. Texts that share a similar (sometimes nearly identical) narrative frame will be selected, drawing from the strong mythological traditions of the Greater Himalayan region. One set of parallel texts will be assembled for each sub-group: Kiranti (from Nepal), and Rgyalrong and Naish (from China). (Note that “parallel texts” in the sense of our project does not refer to texts with aligned translation, as in “parallel Classical Greek texts”: Greek on one page and English on the facing page, but to traditional texts put in parallel according to the junctures of their narrative frames.) The alignment of texts on the basis of their narrative frame will allow for the cross-language comparison of highly similar native materials; among other benefits for research, the typologically salient features of each sub-group will thus come to the fore with greater accuracy than can be obtained through the type of elicitation often used for cross-language comparison, e.g. the Pear Story.
HimalCo includes the two essential steps of (i) first-hand data collection in the field (in Nepal and China) and (ii) state-of-the-art transcription, annotation and formatting of the entire data set. In addition to classical interlinear morphemic glossing, translation and sound synchronization as implemented in the LACITO Archive (to which the participants are regular contributors), the narratives will be organized into parallel corpora in each of the three language subgroups, and the lexical data will be serve as the basis for talking dictionaries: dictionaries combined with sound recordings of individual entries (words spoken in isolation) and of example sentences.
The team, which includes an IT specialist, will develop simple interfaces for the consultation of parallel corpora and talking dictionaries, allowing the comparison of material in individual languages, across languages of a subgroup, and across subgroups. This project will provide the solid empirical basis which has heretofore been lacking for research on these languages: all the materials will be made freely available online through the LACITO Archive, whose interface will be enriched to allow consultation of parallel texts and talking dictionaries. These objectively verifiable data will be available for the in-depth investigation of a broad range of issues that include topical issues in synchrony and diachrony (comparative morphology; reconstruction of Tibeto-Burman morphology; and study of the evolution of morphological systems) for which these languages have key evidence to contribute.