Data - but data from what?

Finnegan, Ruth (2008). Data - but data from what? Language Documentation and Description, 5 pp. 13–28.

Abstract

This article – by an anthropologist with a background in classical studies rather than an expert linguist - consists merely of some informal reflections on questions that have confronted me during my personal experience of working over the years on aspects of oral performance, verbal art, musical practices, ‘orality’ and literacy. I consider in particular issues to do with what is meant by ‘language’ – something I have become increasingly uncertain of - and thus how and by whom data about ‘a’ language should be documented. These questions are important, for whatever ‘language’ is or is not taken to be – written text, performance, abstract system, meaning, action, people deploying resources from across the interpenetrating modes of human communication, or even, by now, an outdated term - there is clearly no single cross-culturally neutral or a-political view of it. Whatever model we adopt we are inevitably making choices, and decisions about what data counts may mean in effect tacitly lining up with some particular position about the nature and working of ‘language’.

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