The Status of Documentation for BC Native Languages


This document describes the status of documentation for the native languages of British Columbia. The kinds of documentation described are: (a) dictionaries; (b) grammars; (c) collections of text; and (d) textbooks. Ideally, a language should have a comprehensive dictionary containing necessary grammatical information and analytic apparatus. It should also have a comprehensive reference grammar. Ideally, there should be extensive text, of a variety of types (stories, formal speeches, casual conversation, etc.) with translation and annotation of lexical, grammatical, cultural, and historical points. Audio recordings of the material in the texts are highly desirable. The kind of textbook of interest is one suitable for a serious course of study for adults, e.g. at university level. Such a textbook will not be suitable for younger students, but its existence means that the necessary information exists and that the dependencies between topics have been worked out. In other words, it means that the basis exists for other kinds of curriculum.

In addition to the strictly linguistic information described here, truly complete documentation will require encyclopaedic cultural information as well. Areas of particular importance are: kinship terminology, biological terminology, traditional technology, spirituality, and placenames. Such ancillary materials are not discussed here.

This document also describes the linguistic expertise available for the various languages. A language about which no linguist is knowledgable is worse off than one about which one or more linguists are knowledgable, even if they have not yet produced all of the necessary documentation.

It is important to note that it is not really sufficient to have only a single linguist working on a language, no matter how talented and productive. A single person can only do so much work, a problem which is exacerbated when there are significant dialect differences. Moreover, different linguists have different talents and interests, so they will do a better job on some aspects of the language than on others, and will give some aspects more emphasis than others.

It is therefore highly desirable for several linguists to be at work on a language. Hundreds of linguists have worked on most European and East Asian languages, for example, yet there are many things that we still do not understand about these languages. It is a reflection of the very poor state of documentation of native languages that it is generally considered fortunate if even a single linguist has done extensive work on a native language.

The following chart summarizes the available information. The ``Grammar'', ``Dictionary'', ``Texts'', and ``Textbook'' columns describe the status of each type of documentation. The ``linguists'' column provides two pieces of information, separated by a slash. The first is the number of living linguists reasonably familiar with the language. (The degree of familiarity ranges from relatively brief fieldwork to extensive knowledge and the ability to speak the language.) The second number is the number of linguists actively engaged in documentation. The notation ``3/1'' for Thompson, for example, means that there are three linguists familiar with the language, of whom one is active. These figures include only people with sufficient linguistic training to do serious documentation work. People learning or teaching a language but not engaged in documentation work are not included, nor are people doing work peripheral to language, such as ethnobotany or oral history.

The language names are links to bibliographies of materials on the language. Please note that these bibliographies are not, in general, exhaustive, but at least contain the major items of documentation.

Language Grammar Dictionary Texts Textbook Linguists
Babine-Witsuwit'enmorpho-phonology in progressfair 1st semester3/2
Beaverphonologymodest nounsnonenone2/0
Chilcotinnone nonenonenone4/0
Coast Tsimshianfair fairfairnone2/1
Comox/Sliamongoodfairnonenone5/2
Creesketchesgoodgood1st year3+/3+
Dakelhfairfairgood drafty 1st year1/1
Ditidatnonenonemodest1st year1/1
Gitksanexcellentmodestnonenone1/1
Haidagoodgoodgoodnone1/1
Haislanonegoodfair1st year draft2/1
Halkomelemgoodgoodin progressin progress6/6
Heiltsuklengthy sketchgoodnonenone1/1
Kaskanonenounsgoodnone2/2
Kootenaifairin progressgoodnone3/1
Kwakw'alagoodsmallexcellantnone0/0
Lilloetgoodnonenone1st year4/2
Nicola (extinct)nonenonenonenone0/0
Nisga'agoodfairnonedraft1/1
Nuuchanulthgoodtopicalgoodnone2/2
Nuxalkgoodmodestexcellantnone4/3
Okanagangoodgoodgoodnone2/1
Pentlatch (extinct)nonenonenonenone0/0
Saulteaugoodgoodnonenone2+/2+
Secheltnonenonenonemodest2/1
Sekaniextended sketchfairnonenone1/1
Shuswapgoodgoodgoodmodest4/2
Slaveexcellantfairnonenone3+/3+
South Tsimshiannone nonenonenone2/1
Squamishgoodmodestgoodnone2/1
Straitsnonenonenonemodest5/1
Tahltannoneminimalnonenone7/2
Thompsonexcellantexcellantnonenone4/1
Tlingitgoodgoodexcellantelementary5/3
Tsetsaut (extinct)nonenonenonenone0/0

The following bar graph summarizes the status of documentation for BC native languages. The figures represent the percentage of languages for which documentation of each type rated `good'' or better is available.


There are hardly any languages that can be considered well documented. Even where one or two components are of good quality, others are missing. Roughly half the languages have no decent grammar. Only about a third have a good dictionary or text collection. There is no university-level textbook for any language beyond the first-year, and even this exists only for a minority of the languages.

The amount of reseach activity does not bode well for remedying this situation. The following bar graph shows the percentage of the extant languages on which different numbers of linguists are actively working.


For almost two-thirds of the languages, there is at most one linguist active. Only a third have two or more, and four of these (Cree, Saulteau, Slave, and Tlingit) are languages spoken primarily outside of BC, where most or all of the work is on non-BC varieties. There are several languages on which no linguist is actively working: Beaver, Chilcotin, Kwakw'ala. These languages are by no means well documented; indeed, Beaver and Chilcotin are rather poorly documented.

This is a summary of The Status of Documentation for British Columbia Native Languages which contains details on each language. To obtain a copy, order it from YDLI or download a copy from the download page.

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Yinka Déné Language Institute © 2006