March 03, 2004

Corporate sponsorship for language documentation

In a comment on Language Hat's site, Claire Bowern writes

When I was an undergrad we came up with a sponsorship scheme to raise money for our fieldwork. For the cost of enough fieldwork to produce a reference grammar, dictionary and texts, your company would get the right to name the language (many of the languages had no name the speakers used), unlimited rights to vocab items for product names, your company logo on the front of the dictionary, etc..

(Before anyone takes me seriously, we came up with this idea at the pub one Friday evening)

I think this should be taken very seriously indeed.

Not the parts about naming the language, or vocabulary ownership. And I think it's better to see it in terms of language documentation rather than field work, focusing as far as possible on on local institutions as active partners. But the company logo on the dictionary is a fine idea, and could be Good Thing for all concerned.

Every large company spends a lot of money every year on "good works", including educational and cultural projects. I once tried to raise money for making dictionaries of African languages from large companies doing business in the areas where the languages are spoken. I failed, and I concluded that it would not be easy to succeed. The idea takes some getting used to, and it's a lot of work even to get to talk with the people who make decisions about how this sort of money is spent, and these people sit in the middle of a web of obligations and constraints that has to be understood and dealt with. In the end, I couldn't put in the time that it would clearly take.

However, it's basically an excellent idea. There are many languages (including many in no imminent danger of extinction) that lack good dictionaries, or even any dictionary at all. A properly-done lexical database can be tapped to produce dictionaries for native-speaker school use as well as versions suitable for second-language learners and scholars.

The tangible results are a source of pride (and therefore gratitude) on the part of native speakers. These results last a long time -- such dictionaries continue to be used for decades after they are first published -- while many other worthwhile cultural programs such as the standard dance troupe tour are relatively ephemeral.

In addition, the process of creation can be valuable in itself. Dictionary projects can be an excellent training ground for practical linguistics, including especially native-speaker students, and can connect well to literacy programs, compilations of traditional and popular culture, and so on.

So it's a win/win/win solution -- for the sponsors, for the speakers, and for linguists. All we have to do is to explain the idea persuasively to the vice presidents for charitable and cultural activities at the world's multinational corporations.

Well, there's also the little matter of making sure that the process, once funded, actually works. For example, there isn't any good open-source lexical database software suitable for this application. And dictionary projects notoriously divide into two classes, roughly those that converge on a result and those that don't, and we'd have to find a way to guarantee that nearly all the funded projects fall into the first class, or the whole idea would fall apart. But still, I think that Claire's idea is a good one.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 3, 2004 10:27 AM