Languages are made up of linguistic signs, each of which is a conventional pairing of a form and a meaning. In spoken languages, the form is sound; in signed languages, it is a visual sign. A central task in documenting any spoken language is to lay bare the processes and structures - grammatical, lexical and prosodic - by which its speakers infer meaning from sound, and produce sound to express meaning.
Technological advances in recent decades have seen our ability to both record and archive these sounds advance steadily, as witnessed by the many new tools and projects discussed at this workshop. Yet the other side of language - what these recordings mean - remains problematic, and presents difficult problems for archiving that receive all too little discussion. The worst case - found all too often - is an immaculate sound recording of a passage in language, without translation - for a language about which little is known this is about as helpful as tablets in the Indus or other undeciphered scripts: we recognize that language is there, without knowing what it means. Such cases can result either from language materials that are recorded without being analysed, or through a prevalent asymmetry by which the original text is recorded, but not the process of arriving at a translation through subsequent discussion and probing.
The next worst case might follow the language passage with a short explanation or partial translation in some more widely-known language such as English, e.g. by the storyteller: because such translations are rarely complete, this is far from satisfactory. Even the canonical situation, in which a full and careful translation (e.g. by the linguist) is given, conceals a host of unanswered questions: how was the translation arrived at? what other translations would have been possible? what is the semantic range of each word or other linguistic sign, used in isolation? what cultural knowledge underlies the interpretation of particular figures of speech? how did the immediate context, including gesture, setting, other participants present, and so forth, contribute to the particular translation? Did local traditions of commentary and exegesis play a role in the translation - these could include, for example, explanatory asides or further texts that arose at particular points in working over the original texts.
The fact that meaning is, at least in part, inside the minds of speaker and hearer, makes it inherently more difficult to capture than sound, which is physically present. However, a range of techniques that linguists use are, in principle, documentable.
Some involve links to visual presentations of one sort or another, labelled realia: the meaning of a word or expression may be illustrated by photographs (e.g. of plants) or videos (e.g. of movement types, or processes); elicitation protocols (picture books, space game or video prompts); sand diagrams drawn to illustrate schematic concepts; keyed botanical specimens; GPS references for site names. These links need not be confined to illustrating reference: they may also illustrate motivations for metaphorical or metonymic extensions of terms, e.g. by zooming in on salient shapes of body parts used in metaphors, or on habitat links (e.g. particular fish that feed on the fallen fruit of particular trees) that underlie 'sign metonymies' by which the same name may be used both for a plant and an animal found in its vicinity.
Other techniques, yet to be widely used in documenting little-known languages, can be adapted from the hermeneutic methods of linked commentaries on sacred texts in, e.g. in the Talmudic, Islamic and Buddhist traditions, using hypertext to link recorded interpretive comments to primary recorded materials in as many places as necessary
(Bernard Muir's Ductus project begins to do this with medieval texts). This may also include speakers volunteering example sentences or other material illustrating how to use words that crop up in texts.
Further methods, such as videoing responses by one speaker to language material presented by another (e.g. in the Nijmegen space games) can furnish visual evidence of how speakers interpret directives, hence documenting the decoding aspect of meaning as well.
Techniques such as the above will never capture all aspects of how a semantic analysis is arrived at - the hyperrealistic illusion that every moment of a field investigator's investigation should be captured is untenable and interferes both with the daily human interactions that form part of learning a language, and with the serendipitous moments at which investigators suddenly click what something means. However, more explicit recognition of their role, during both recording and subsequent archiving, goes some way towards correcting the current asymmetry faced in the process of documentation of form and documentation of meaning.