Calendar | 12/06/2015

New insights into the description of Uralic languages

Kone Foundation organized a networking event on linguistic description with a particular focus on the Uralic language group.
Add to my calendar 2015-06-12 10:00 2015-06-12 18:00 Europe/Helsinki New insights into the description of Uralic languages New insights into the description of Uralic languages Saaren rantatie 21, 23140 Hietamäki

The workshop, which is part of the Kone Foundation Language Programme, will be held at Saari Manor in Mynämäki, Finland, on 12 June, 2015. The foundation will organize a funding round on the same theme in the autumn of 2015.

The speakers of the workshop include Peter Austin (SOAS, University of London), Matti Miestamo (University of Helsinki), and Lea Siilin (University of Eastern Finland). The presentations and the discussions will focus on how the more or less threatened Uralic languages could be described in ways that would be fruitful for both scholars and language communities. In order to create better projects, inspiration will be sought from other language groups.

Speakers, performers and organizers

Peter K. Austin

Peter Austin is Märit Rausing Chair in Field Linguistics, Director of the Endangered Languages Academic Programme at SOAS, University of London and Visiting Research Professor, University of Hong Kong. His research covers descriptive, theoretical and applied linguistics, with a focus on the theory and practice of language documentation. He has carried out extensive fieldwork on Australian Aboriginal and Austronesian languages of eastern Indonesia, and revitalisation work with Dieri Aboriginal Corporation of South Australia.

Peter Austin has been teaching at SOAS since 2002 and has given a wide range of talks, conference papers and lectures, and has participated in a number of international training events and summer schools. His publications include 1,000 Languages, The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages (with Julia Sallabank) and A Grammar of the Diyari Language, South Australia.

Peter Austin started his linguistics career in in Australia, with visiting appointments at University of Frankfurt, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics Nijmegen, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Hong Kong University, and Stanford University. In 2002, the Humboldt Foundation, Germany, awarded him the Humboldt Prize and in 2010 the Humboldt Award. In January 2015 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate honoris causa by Uppsala University in recognition of his international work on endangered languages.

Peter Austin

Matti Miestamo

Matti  Miestamo is a researcher who specialises in large-scale comparison of languages, studying literally hundreds of languages at a time. Professor Miestamo’s research topics include the expression of negation and questions in the world’s languages, and issues of language complexity. He is also interested in the documentation of less-studied languages, such as Skolt Saami.


Lea Siilin

Lea Siilin is a professor of the Russian language and culture at the University of Eastern Finland. Her fields of research are the Russian language, from ancient Russian literature to the modern day, the use of language in the media, hagiographies and palaeographies.



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Klo 10:00 Coffee

Klo 10:15 Hanna Nurminen,  Chairperson of the Board:  Welcome

Klo 10:30 Peter Austin: Language documentation for language revitalisation and support


Klo 12:00 Lunch

Klo 13:00 Matti Miestamo: Language typology and language description: general and Uralic perspectives


Klo 14:00 Lea Siilin: Karjalan kielioppihanke (Karelian grammar project)


Klo 15:00 Generating project ideas (coffee)

Klo 16:30 Networking and dinner

Klo 18:00 The event ends. Return busses to Helsinki and Turku leave.

Photographs that may be used in the Foundation’s communications will be taken at the event. Please let the organisers know if you do not wish to be photographed.


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Date and location

Time: 10:00–18:00

Location: Saari Manor, Saaren rantatie 21, 23140 Hietamäki

We will organise a free bus transportation from Helsinki and Turku. The busses leave from Helsinki Mikonkatu at 7:30 AM and from Turku railway station’s front doors at 9:30 AM.

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Linguistic description for Uralic scholars and artists

New insights into the description of Uralic languages

New insights into the description of Uralic languages were provided by Kone Foundation on 12 June at the Saari Manor. ”Documentation” might have been a better word in the title, because language documentation can include both documenting a language and making generalizations by writing grammars. Both issues were discussed.

Peter Austin from SOAS (University of London) gave an invigorating start to the seminar. His background is in the comprehensive research of certain languages spoken in South-East Asia, Australia and Polynesia. Under the topic Language documentation for language revitalisation and support — what would it look like?, Austin quoted the definition of documentation by Nikolaus Himmelmann: it is “concerned with the methods, tools, and theoretical underpinnings for compiling a representative and lasting multipurpose record of a natural language or one of its varieties”.

Much attention has been paid to language documentation during the last two decades, when its value for the maintenance of threatened languages has been understood. Nowadays, the emphasis is on its significance for speech communities, not just for professional linguists, which is also reflected in the Kone Foundation Language Programme. Peter Austin used sustainable use of land as the metaphor of language documentation of a high quality: linguists should not just harvest the linguistic crops from speech communities, but they should also take care that the documentation supports language maintenance.

The presentations by Matti Miestamo and Lea Siilin brought Uralic languages into the focus. Miestamo discussed the utility of language typological approaches in documenting this language family. A notable amount of fieldwork has been dedicated to Uralic languages since the early 19th century, which means that there is a lot of “grey literature”, research on specific parts of grammar written in local languages. Modern grammars are, on the other hand, rare, which is why general linguists are not very familiar with this group of languages. This situation should be changed. As regards the Karelian language, the issue will be tackled in Comparative Karelian Grammar, the project presented by Lea Siilin. Siilin’s project combines research with civil society action: influencing language attitudes, and activating language use.

Co-operation between artists and scholars in language documentation initiatives

One of the aims of the Kone Foundation Language Programme is to promote the combining of linguistic and artistic approaches. The Language description thematic funding round, which will be open in September, makes this possible in many different ways. In his June presentation, Peter Austin said that linguistic documentation requires cross-disciplinary teams, not just linguists, and he mentioned artistic work. After his presentation, we asked Peter to give us examples of projects that have involved collaboration between artists and scholars.

It appeared that Austin himself has been working with artists. SOAS has participated in a few projects with the sound artist John Wynne, such as an installation and a cd-rom, which later became a computer app. Wynne, who is a researcher, too, has written a scholarly article on the subject, and authored an award-winning radio feature. Peter Austin, on the other hand, has participated in Living language, an exhibition which commemorated London’s multilingualism and featured collaboration between artists and scholars, and has written a blog post on plays that concern threatened languages. Worthy of reading is also the article by David Crystal mentioned in Peter Austin’s presentation.

Several films and tv documentaries have been produced by film makers in collaboration with scholars and local communities. An example is Language matters, by the poet Bob Hiolman and the movie director David Grubin. Another example of a language-related combination of research and art is the work of art Voces indígenas in the pavillion of Italian Institute of Latin America at the current Venice Biennale of Contemporary Art. It consists of loudspeakers, each of which produces samples of seventeen living and extinct languages of Central and South America.

Moreover, examples of a similar collaboration can be found in projects supported by Kone Foundation, such as The Suistamo Laboratory of Traditions, by Anne-Mari Kivimäki, and Down River Vashka, by Tristan Hamel, both of which include linguistic documentation.


Peter Austin’s presentation (pdf)

Lea Siilin’s presentation (pdf)

Matti Miestamo’s presentation (pdf






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