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  • SIL International and the disciplinary culture of linguistics:Introduction
  • Lise M. Dobrin

SIL, missionary linguistics, linguistic fieldwork, history of linguistics, international development, Bible translation, endangered languages

This collection of papers is an attempt to begin a new conversation among academic linguists about the scope, institutional underpinnings, and implications for academia of the work being carried out by our missionary counterparts, particularly the Bible translation organization SIL International (SIL). The observation that we take as our starting point is one that some linguists might never have considered, while others take it for granted: that there are systematic dependencies between our discipline on the one hand, and a Christian missionary organization and its products on the other. Because it necessarily raises very personal questions of religion and motivation, this topic is a sensitive one that we know many would rather avoid. But as several of the contributors here try to make clear, the time has come for the community of academic linguists to reconsider its role in sustaining this status quo.

My interest in the relationship between academic linguistics and SIL grows out of discussions I have had with Jeff Good over the past several years. Good conducts fieldwork on Bantoid languages in Northwest Cameroon and has a long-standing interest in digital aspects of language documentation. My fieldwork has been on the Arapesh languages of Papua New Guinea, where I have explored not only traditional linguistic questions about grammatical structure, but also issues surrounding the community-fieldworker relationship from an anthropological point of view. Like many other academically based field linguists, both Good and I have benefited enormously from mission expertise and infrastructure in the field. We have received generous advice and practical assistance from SIL colleagues in our respective field regions. We have relied on numerous mission resources in carrying out our primary research: Ethnologue, phonetic fonts, and previously collected word lists; library collections, transportation, accommodations in the field; even foreign currency exchange at the best rate in town. Indeed, we can hardly imagine being able to do fieldwork without these things. And yet, the current professional climate of concern for small and endangered languages has led us to question the extent to which SIL, with its guiding project of facilitating the worldwide spread of Christianity, is really a fellow traveler.

Preliminary versions of these papers were presented at the 2007 Linguistic Society of America annual meeting in Anaheim, CA, in a symposium entitled 'Missionaries and scholars: The overlapping agendas of linguists in the field'. The participants were invited because of the diverse experiences and disciplinary perspectives they brought to the incipient conversation. Patience Epps is an anthropologically trained linguist who conducted documentary fieldwork in Amazonia, where she observed firsthand the tensions arising from mission activities in native communities. After the symposium, Epps began collaborating with Herb Ladley, whose interest in faith as a motivation for linguistic work led him to carry out research on SIL recruiting and fundraising practices while he was a student at the University of Virginia. He now works in the field of [End Page 618] international development finance. Linguistic anthropologist Courtney Handman conducted research with Guhu-Samane speakers in rural Papua New Guinea (PNG), as well as at the SIL-PNG headquarters in Ukarumpa, PNG. She studies the ways in which mission language ideologies and translation practices have shaped moral attitudes toward traditionalism in a recently Christianized society. William Svelmoe is a historian of American religion who grew up in the Philippines, where his parents worked as missionary linguists with SIL. In line with his interest in the history of Protestant evangelical missions, he has written a scholarly biography of SIL's founder, Cameron Townsend. Kenneth Olson is a linguist with research specializations in phonology, phonetics, African languages, and historical linguistics; he is also an SIL member with extensive experience preparing future SIL fieldworkers for language-development work all over the world.

There was one participant in the LSA symposium, Daniel Everett, who elected not to publish his paper in this collection. Everett, a former SIL member and active contributor to linguistic theory, raised several issues that thread throughout the other papers. One is the need to clearly distinguish between the SIL linguists most...


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