Lise Dobrin

Associate Professor

Ph.D. University of Chicago 1999


Structural linguistics, Melanesian language and culture, history of anthropology, language shift, language documentation and description.

I am a linguist trained in the analysis of sound and word structure. My first research project was on the Arapesh languages of Papua New Guinea. Working from both documentary sources and materials collected during fifteen months of fieldwork (1997-1999), I studied the ways in which sounds are systematically exploited by the Arapesh noun classification system. The theoretical emphasis of this work as developed in my 2012 book, Concreteness in Grammar: The Noun Class Systems of the Arapesh Languages, is on the nature of the lexical representations implied by such a classification systems, and their implications for grammatical organization.

Like other small languages the world over, Arapesh is endangered. In the coastal Arapesh area, young adults have only passive competence, and their children have hardly any knowledge of their ancestral tongue at all. Arapesh villagers instead use PNG's creole lingua franca, Tok Pisin, as the medium of daily life. Recognizing the way language shift is affecting these communities has had a profound impact on the work that I do.

Most directly, I have become engaged in the basic work of language documentation and description. Since 2005, with support from the NSF/NEH Documenting Endangered Languages program and in collaboration with UVA's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, I have been curating The Arapesh Grammar and Digital Language Archive, a digital archive of Arapesh lingusitc and cultural materials. The archive incorporates dozens of Arapesh audiorecorded and transcribed texts. I am now in the process of integrating them with a lexicon that has reached over 3000 top-level entries. I have also digitized nearly a hundred transcribed Bukiyip Arapesh texts, and have been glossing them in collaboration with Bob Conrad, the missionary linguist who collected them in the 1970s. The archive site also includes a map of the Arapesh area, annotated sample texts, a digital copy of Reo Fortune's Arapesh grammar, and photographic images from Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune's seminal research among the Arapesh in 1931-1932. I am currently working on a grammar of Cemaun Arapesh that relies on these archived materials. I am now also planning for a digital village history project that serves both scholarly and community goals.

The problem of language endangerment has brought new attention to social process within the discipline of linguistics. Revaluing the human and moral dimensions of linguistic research has raised a number of issues surrounding power, ethics, fieldwork methods and goals. In a series of papers (Dobrin 2008; Dobrin, Austin, and Nathan 2009; Dobrin 2009; Dobrin 2012; Dobrin and Holton 2014) I try to bring an ethnographic sensibility to bear in exploring some of these issues. The ethics of field research has also been an important focus of my scholarly service, whether on the University of Virginia’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Institutional Review Board, the American Anthropological Association’s Committee on Ethics, or the Linguistic Society of America’s Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation.

The cross-cultural fieldwork encounter is of course a key arena in which problems of social process become consequential, whether one is describing an unstudied culture as anthropologists did in the past, or documenting an endangered language as linguists are doing today. My own field experience has provided me with a vantage point from which to revisit the publications and unpublished archive of two scholars who conducted research on Arapesh language and culture before me, Reo Fortune and Margaret Mead. Mead and Fortune did fieldwork on Arapesh together, yet they drew radically different conclusions from their experiences. In collaboration with Ira Bashkow (Dobrin and Bashkow 2006, Bashkow and Dobrin 2007, Dobrin and Bashkow 2010a,b), I have been studing the interpersonal and intercultural factors that led to this divergence of interpretation, and thinking about what this case means for the creation of knowledge about other social worlds.

Selected Publications

2016 (with Saul Schwartz) - Collaboration or Participant Observation? Rethinking Models of 'Linguistic Social Work'. Language Documentation and Conservation 10:253-277.   

2016 (with Saul Schwartz) - The Cultures of Native North American Language Documentation and Revitalization. Reviews in Anthropology 45(2):88-123.  

2014 - Language Shift in an ‘Importing Culture’: The Cultural Logic of the Arapesh Roads. In Peter K. Austin and Julia Sallabank, eds., Endangered Languages: Beliefs and Ideologies in Language Documentation and Revitalization, pp. 125-148. Proceedings of the British Academy 199. London: Oxford University Press.  

2013 (with Gary Holton) - The Documentation Lives a Life of Its Own: The Temporal Transformation of Two Endangered Language Archive Projects. Museum Anthropology Review 7(1-2):140-154

2012 - Concreteness in Grammar: The Noun Class Systems of the Arapesh Languages. Stanford Studies in Morphology and the Lexicon. Stanford: CSLI.

2012 – Ethnopoetic Analysis as a Methodological Resource for Endangered Language Linguistics: The Social Production of an Arapesh Text. Anthropological Linguistics 54(1):1-32.

2011 (with Josh Berson) - Speakers and Language Documentation. In Peter K. Austin and Julia Sallabank, eds., The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages, pp. 187-211. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2010a (with Ira Bashkow) - Arapesh Warfare: Reo Fortune's Veiled Critique of Margaret Mead's Sex and Temperament. American Anthropologist 112(3):370-383.

2010b (with Ira Bashkow) - The Truth in Anthropology Does Not Travel First Class: Reo Fortune's Fateful Encounter with Margaret Mead. In R. Darnell and F. Gleach, eds., Histories of Anthropology Annual Volume 6, pp. 66-128. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

2009 (with Peter K. Austin and David Nathan) - Dying to Be Counted: The Commodification of Endangered Languages in Documentary Linguistics. In Peter K. Austin, ed., Language Documentation and Description, Vol. 6, pp. 37-52. London: Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project.

2009 - Introduction to special section of Language: SIL International and the Disciplinary Culture of Linguistics. Language 85(3):618-619.

2009 (with Jeff Good) - Practical Language Development: Whose Mission? Language 85(3):619-629.

2008 - From Linguistic Elicitation to Eliciting the Linguist: Lessons in Community Empowerment from Melanesia. Language 84(2):300-324.

2006 (with Ira Bashkow) - "Pigs for Dance Songs": Reo Fortune's Empathetic Ethnography of the Arapesh Roads. In R. Darnell and F. Gleach, eds., Histories of Anthropology Annual Volume 2, pp. 123-154. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
2001 - Arapesh. In J. Garry and C. Rubino, eds., Facts About the World's Languages: An Encyclopedia of the World's Languages, Past and Present, pp. 33-38. New York: Wilson.
1998 - The Morphosyntactic Reality of Phonological Form. In G. Booij and J. van Marle, eds., Yearbook of Morphology 1997, pp. 59-81. Dordrecht: Kluwer.