Legacy materials and cultural facework: Obscenity and bad words in Siouan language documentation 


  • Saul Schwartz


There is a tension in language documentation between the goal of producing: (1) a comprehensive record of endangered languages; and (2) a selective record that displays consciously curated images of indigenous cultural heritage. Drawing on ethnographic and archival research on how community linguists handle obscenity and bad words in Siouan language documentation, I reframe the problem of “thoroughness versus prudishness” (Hinton & Weigel 2002: 166) as a process of cultural facework (Goffman 1967), strategies that participants use to manage their social self-presentation in fieldwork as well as in the representations of culture circulated in the resulting documentary materials. Cultural facework requires participants in language documentation projects to be strategic in order to “project a good image of the speakers and their culture” (Mithun 2014: 27). In Siouan language documentation, three factors complicate cultural facework: (1) extensive collections of legacy materials; (2) the cultural value attributed to potentially obscene and therefore censored or concealed material; and (3) social conflict over how sensitive material should be handled. There is no solution to or escape from the process of facework, there is only further facework, i.e., additional and potentially controversial acts of censorship or disclosure designed to present a particular social image of a community and its culture.


endangered languagesindigenouscultural heritageobscenityfaceworkcensoredsocial image
  • Year: 2021
  • Volume: 21
  • Page/Article: 166-198
  • DOI: 10.25894/ldd21
  • Published on 31 Dec 2021