Fragmented Languages Scale

We recommend a reading of the explanatory text on this page before reviewing the scale, which can be accessed here.

WIELD was founded to promote the description and documentation of endangered and extinct languages. The number of languages which might fit within our mission likely runs into the thousands. Though there are not enough dedicated linguists (much less enough funding support) to do all that needs to be done, there are already many linguistics departments and other forms of support working to document endangered languages. The lion’s share of such efforts, however, involve endangered languages with living speakers and, often, at least a remnant speech community within which the speakers continue to communicate.

What is too often undervalued (if not outright ignored) is the vast amount of documentation that has already been done on languages that now lack viable speech communities or have no living speakers. In many of these situations, it is impossible to collect additional data from fluent speakers, and the scholars who conducted the original fieldwork and archived their documentation have passed away or otherwise left the field. For many languages, such documentation has not led to academic descriptions, and in an alarming number of cases, large amounts of high-quality language documentation for languages with no living fluent speakers lie in archives waiting to be analyzed.

It is this area of language documentation—this “white space,” as it were—that is the primary focus of WIELD. We have chosen to label languages with no living speech community (and often no speakers) and some amount of documentation as fragmented languages. The quantity and quality of extant documentation vary tremendously from one language to another (as does the opportunity to collect additional original data); many of the languages have such a fragmented documentary record that linguistic description is difficult or impossible. However, many others have significant amounts of archived documentation on which significant descriptive works could be based.

In order to quantify the success of our projects and provide a more focused framework for our mission, WIELD has created a fragmented languages scale. The purpose of this scale is simple: it assigns an informative value to each language that allows WIELD to determine which languages should be given priority in our efforts to support documentation and description. The number assigned to each language within this scale is, to a certain extent, not a static one. Indeed, it is WIELD’s intention that this fragmented languages scale be used to track the progress of descriptive works published as a result of WIELD’s sponsorship of fragmented language projects.

How does the scale work? There are three broad categories represented in the scale: (1) extant publications and theses devoted to the language, (2) extant documentation (written and audio/video) of the language (this is represented by two numbers: the first relates to written documentation; the second to audio/video), (3) size of speech community. These three categories are separated by dashes. The first category, extant publications and theses, is represented by letters on a scale of A B C D F, with A being the highest. All other categories are on a number scale of 4 3 2 1 0, with 4 being the highest.

The basis for the assignment of an a value to each category is explained in detail in the document linked at the top of this page. Note that the choice of letters rather than numbers for the initial category is an intentional mnemonic. As will be seen shortly, it is in this area of the scale values that WIELD has the greatest opportunity to change things. (Hereafter, fragmented language scale values will be abbreviated as FLV.)

When a language is first adopted for an active project by WIELD, it is assigned an FLV. It is the goal of WIELD to increase the the FLV to the maximum extent possible. For example, Northeastern Pomo, when it was first adopted for a project by WIELD, would have had the FLV of F-42-0 because not one paper, grammar, dictionary, book of texts, MA thesis, or PhD dissertation had been written with Northeastern Pomo as its sole focus. As of 2016, however, the FLV for Northeastern Pomo changed from F-42-0 to D-42-0 because of the publication by a WIELD board member of a peer-reviewed paper that solely focused on the language.

Note that for Northeastern Pomo, the other categories within its FLV cannot change: there are no living speakers and therefore no more opportunities to increase the extant documentation. It is therefore the goal of WIELD’s Northeastern Pomo project to raise the current FLV of the language from D-42-0 to its maximum potential FLV of A-42-0. To do so, a grammar and dictionary must be published for this language, and at least one transcribed and glossed example of a narrative text must be included in these publications or a separate publication.

As can be seen by referencing the specific case of Northeastern Pomo, WIELD’s fragmented languages scale allows for a quick and accurate method of establishing the current and potential status of languages awaiting academic description. In the coming months, each language project supported by WIELD will include a fragmented languages scale value representing its current status; each will also be assigned a potential value we believe might be reached within the confines of its current documentation and extant speech community. This will be shown by listing the current value first and the potential value immediately after in parentheses. If the language has already reached its maximum possible FLV, nothing is provided in parentheses. Examples:

Northeastern Pomo, FLV: D-42-0 (A-42-0)
Purisimeño, FLV F-30-0 (B-30-0)
Southern Pomo, FLV B-44-0 (A-44-0)
Wappo, FLV A-44-0

The existence of a minimum number of descriptive works, which is the value associated with A in an FLV, in no way implies that there is no more to be done for a language. As can be seen above, Wappo, the focus of one of WIELD’s language projects, already has an FLV of A-44-0. The FLV system is meant to be a triage-like first pass to aid in deciding where to allocate resources. In the case of the WIELD Wappo project, which has a current FLV of A-44-0, the language actually had a score of A-44-1 when we began sponsoring work on Wappo. WIELD was able to work with the last living fluent speaker before his passing and thereby contribute an important amount of additional high-quality data. Thus extenuating circumstance (e.g. the opportunity to collect additional documentary data from a speaker of a soon-to-be extinct language) can justly push a fragmented language to the forefront.