Linguistics Department

Documentary and Descriptive Linguistics - Research Projects

Students in documentary and descriptive linguistics typically work on a language that has been under-studied and under-described. Although many such languages are also endangered, others have very large numbers of speakers. UT has special strength in Latin American indigenous languages, but students have worked all over the world and are encouraged to work wherever their primary interests take them.

We encourage students to work in teams on documentation projects. These teams may include speakers of the language of study as linguists, leaders, and teachers. Four recent or on-going projects of this kind are: 

  1. Mayan Languages Documentation Project. Two faculty members and ten graduate students (four of whom have received their PhDs) have worked on Mayan languages recently in several different projects. Two of the students and one of the faculty members worked on a documentation project in four Mayan languages that was administered by a Guatemalan linguistic research institute. The project was carried out in conjunction with speakers of the languages, was directed by speakers of Mayan languages, and provided training in linguistics for community members and supervisors as well as documentation of the languages. Others have worked in other community projects, in other linguistic projects, or have worked on their own languages in conjunction with their communities.
  2. Chatino Language Documentation Project. Two graduate students from a Chatino community in Oaxaca, Mexico, one faculty member, and four other graduate students undertook a project to document and describe this small group of Otomanguean languages and to work with local authorities, language activists, and school teachers in the Chatino area to support the continued use of the language and to help establish Chatino language literacy. Through these efforts, they hope to preserve local environmental and cultural knowledge, call attention to local oratory and verbal art, and bring wider recognition to Chatino traditions, identity, and human rights. Three of the students have graduated. Two additional students are working on emergent deaf signed language in a Chatino community.
  3. The Dynamics of Hunter-Gatherer Language Change. This project brings language documentation/description together with historical-comparative research. It has involved one faculty member, three graduate students, and several undergraduates in a comparative study of Amazonian languages. The project investigated language contact and language change among hunting/gathering groups and their neighbors in the northwest Amazon, in comparison with other regions in the world. The work has drawn both on published sources and on data from project members’ own fieldwork.
  4. The Iquito Language Documentation Project. First conceived of as a voluntary project by two graduate students in Anthropology and members of a local community for the documentation of their language, Iquito, a moribund language of the Peruvian Amazon, this project eventually involved a total of ten graduate students plus several Peruvian students over four years and received major funding. It provided initial fieldwork experience for students and material for their PhD qualifying papers and master's theses. The doctoral dissertations of two students were on Iquito. Alongside documenting the language, the project produced language teaching materials and project members were involved with training local community language specialists who worked year round during the project. Now concluded, the project became a model for graduate student and community cooperation in research, and stimulated our ideas about the fusion of community and academic agendas around linguistic documentation.

There are also individual student field documentation projects, many of which were initiated and carried out by graduate students who are themselves native speakers of the language being investigated. Recent or current projects include work on Darma (Tibeto-Burman; India), Yongning Na (Tibeto-Burman; China), Tepehuano (Uto-Aztecan; Mexico), Tepehua (Totonacan; Mexico), Soteapan (Mixe-Zoque; Mexico), Zapotec (Otomanguean; Mexico), Chol (Mayan; Mexico), Ixil (Mayan; Guatemala), Mocho’ (Mayan; Mexico), Q’anjob’al (Mayan; Guatemala), K’ichee’ (Mayan; Guatemala), Kuna (Chibchan; Panama), Naso (Chibchan; Panama), Buglere (Chibchan; Panama), Ngäbere (Chibchan; Panama), Quechua (Quechuan; Peru), Kakua (unclassified; Colombia), Paresi (Arawak; Brazil), Nomatsigenka (Kampan; Peru), Djeoromitxi (Jabuti/Macro-Jê; Brazil), Chácobo (Pano; Bolivia), and Kakataibo (Pano; Peru).