In recent years language documentation has been a research prize, particularly work on “endangered languages”. In fact an endangered language for linguists seems to be one that will generate a large grant for fieldwork and subsequent publication. The grant bears fruit according to some peer and university backing, as well as some personal credentials.  It is of course based upon an extensive proposal that documents the need of a language group.  It follows that the languages and people that will have the “advantage” of research are limited by the interests of the researcher and his peers

It also follows that the documentation concentrates on those features that interest mainly linguists.  The data are gathered by means of a language that is known to the researcher and the people under study, so the language used for the investigation is generally not the endangered vernacular.  Linguists traditionally document features of the phonology, grammar, syntax and discourse, with a lexicon, a brief descriptive grammar and some texts.  However, linguists do not have a goal of cultural documentation, except as a by-product of linguistic analysis. Cultural documentation and language documentation are not the same.

Cultural documentation can be viewed in a number of ways. It can concentrate on cultural categories (as does Murdock’s outline of cultural materials), in which case it is a collection of facts about the culture made by outsiders.


Cultural documentation can also be done by visual means—photos and videos of people and their houses, artifacts and rituals. There may be some voice-over information and “explanation” as well.

A third kind of documentation is demographic—noting the number of people, houses and other objects in the village; taking pictures of festivals and peoples; noting the social units and their relationship; and so on.

Cultural documentation through stories is a different animal. It concentrates on the storyteller by determining the stories they know, which ones they can tell and what the stories are meant to represent. Some discussion is necessary to determine that the people want to tell the stories as well as what they would like done with them. They need to know that the stories will be recorded and that they can have copies.

The mechanical aspects of recording stories are straightforward: assuming a knowledge of the equipment and its use, a trial recording is still necessary. The story of course needs a title and the name of the person who tells it, when it is told, and so on. If alternative titles are suggested by listeners, these should also be recorded because the most important thing in the story needs to be summed up in the title and subtitles.

The story should be recorded in total, with as few interruptions as possible. Following this the teller should listen to it and make any editorial changes thought necessary. The story is then re-recorded with a simultaneous translation on the fly. It can then be played pause/breath group by pause/breath group with someone else interpreting and translating it. This should be done by at least three different people. These can then be compared and any obvious discrepancies noted. Each interpreter should also be asked in general what the story is about and what it means, with the answers recorded.

The recordings are catalogued with the appropriate metatdata (language name and code, village, storyteller and assistants, dates, and so on) archived.

Stories, when considered in this fashion, have a number of advantages:

  • Collecting them can be done with minimal training
  • Collecting them can be done by someone who knows the trade language only (i.e. not the vernacular)
  • The collection can be done reasonably quickly (in hours instead of days or weeks)
  • Stories are a natural set of data
  • Stories can be collected in a natural setting (with other listeners)
  • •    Such a collection is not expensive, although recording devices and storage will cost something
  • Stories can complement the more standard kind of language documentation
  • The collection can be a service to the people and government
  • The collection can be useful elsewhere, e.g. on the radio, TV, classrooms, libraries
  • The collecting process and the knowledge of stories can indicate something of language vitality
  • Stories document tradition, oral history and the lives of the storytellers.
  • The content of stories can be useful in literacy and as a precursor to translation

Karl Franklin (July 2007)