Over the past 120 years, language has become subject to archiving. One consequence is that today, languages and linguistic diversity, like species of flora and fauna and biological diversity, are understood as scarce resources the conservation of which is a matter of environmental and political urgency. What implications has this had for the legal debates in which endangered languages have become enmeshed? In Australia, the focus of this study, land claims commissions and native title courts have, since start of the land claims process in the 1970s, relied on linguistic field data to authenticate indigenous claims to land. At the international level, the law of self-determination, since its inception in the 1920s, has been guided by a theory that peoples, populations deserving of political and territorial autonomy, are to be defined by a handful of essential properties, of which monoglot shared speech is regarded as the most obvious.
Endangered language documentation both reaffirms our common status as thinking beings capable of endless invention in the means of giving voice to cognition and lends credence to the notion that different cultures are somehow incommensurable. Media events such as "The Linguists," a documentary, lauded at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, about a pair of linguists who "circle the planet to hear the last whispers of a dying language," satisfy liberal aspirations to cosmopolitanism without impinging upon the circumstances that make such gestures imaginable. This project represented a critical interrogation of language endangerment and an inquiry into what language documentation means to linguists, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, policymakers, indigenous cultural revitalization activists, and interested publics.