ALT Grammar Incubator

Sebastian Nordhoff sebastian_nordhoff at EVA.MPG.DE
Wed Nov 16 09:24:12 UTC 2011

On Wed, 16 Nov 2011 04:47:58 +0100, Marie-Stephan Spronck  
<stephan.spronck at> wrote:

> But given that many (possibly even a majority?) of descriptive grammars  
> are now being written by early career academics, I think there are a  
> number of issues with publishing ongoing research in the way you  
> proposed:
> - publication and copyright issues; this is probably the most obvious  
> one: given the pressure on junior academics to publish as much as  
> possible on the basis of their PhD-thesis (i.e. the grammar), I think it  
> would take a lot of courage and nobility to publically post drafts of  
> the very basis of future papers. Writing on a single specific language  
> for a general linguistic audience can be problematic as it is. Of course  
> this could be remedied by strict citation guidelines, but I'm not so  
> sure that a look-don't-touch policy would be effective.

Linguistics could generally adopt the policy that the collector of the  
primary data has to be mentioned as a co-author in subsequent analyses of  
language-particular phenomena. This will give grammar writers the due  
respect, a much longer publication list, and better career prospects.
This can easily be enforced by journal editors: you normally know how did  
the basic description of language. If someone comes up with a new analysis  
of Galo phonology, chances are that he got his data from Mark Post's  
grammar rather than from original field work.
Note that the issues of papers is peripheral: if you publish your grammar  
with Mouton, other people can also write papers based on your grammar.

> -  too many doctors speeding up 'incubation' can produce unhealthy  
> growth; apologies for the slightly disgusting metaphor, but I think  
> 'incubation' is actually a really important part of the grammar writing  
> process. Writing a grammar is the gargantuan task of trying to  
> comprehensively describe every single aspect of a language and this  
> means constantly revisiting and revising analyses in the light of new  
> discoveries. The final grammar is the best attempt of the grammar writer  
> to cope with all the problems the language poses and opening up  
> preliminary analyses for discussion before the grammar writer has fully  
> formed proposals and hypotheses is, I think, not necessarily beneficial  
> to either the writing process or information sharing. Publishing  
> pre-final analyses can easily lead to the distibution of misinformation,  
> so that preliminary publication would be detrimental to the quality of  
> the data rather than raising it.

Sorry to say, but even a written grammar book will contain a lot of  
pre-final analyses. In a sense, every analysis is prefinal, this is the  
very notion of science. A language is much too complex to be  
comprehensively described in a couple of hundred pages. If you wait for  
the Final Analysis, your grammar will never be published. Since this is  
obviously not desirable, linguistics might as well embrace prefinal  
analyses. The alternative would be: nothing.

Best wishes

> - sharing data with a third party before the directly involved parties;  
> the communities in which descriptive work is taking place are  
> increasingly an active part of the documentation process. Certainly here  
> in Australia it would be unthinkable to do recording and elicitation in  
> an Aboriginal community without properly paying language consultants,  
> being open about how you are using the data and thinking about how the  
> language description and documentation project will benefit the local  
> community. This generally also involves clear agreements about how the  
> researcher is going to publish the data and publication of data in an  
> unexpected place can lead to explosive breaches of trust. Another major  
> party is, of course, the funding body, which is often an external  
> organisation. Distributing data is conditioned by their terms.

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