November 3, 2005
Vol. 25 No. 4

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    Linguistics researchers reintroduce indigenous communities to ancestral languages, cultures

    By Jennifer Carnig
    News Office

    For many Americans, it is hard to grasp why language matters. It is a point of view that John Goldsmith, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in Linguistics, said he is constantly combating.

    “I think it’s something difficult for people to understand, unless their language is threatened,” Goldsmith said. “But if you even go somewhere as close as Quebec, you get it instantly. Language matters it is your culture and your history.”

    With about half of the world’s currently used human languages heading toward extinction, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities, this is a critical historical moment in the preservation of both language and culture. With that in mind, Goldsmith and a team of University faculty and staff, including John Lucy, the William Benton Professor in Comparative Human Development, are leading a project in the hopes of preserving and saving several North, Central and South American Indian languages. Some of the languages the project seeks to preserve include the Algonquian languages Meskwaki and Cree, Greenlandic Eskimo and Inuktitut.

    The team behind the project, “Digital Preservation of Mesoamerican Linguistic Archives,” has been awarded a grant by the NEH and the National Science Foundation as part of a new effort partnering the organizations to save endangered languages.

    The project allows the Language Laboratories and Archives, an organization within the Humanities Division that supports language study and linguistic research, to digitize its unique recordings of world languages. In doing so, these resources will become publicly available for the first time to an international community of scholars and students via the Web.

    The materials include audio field and studio recordings that faculty and students in Linguistics and Anthropology have collected. The LLA staff members are making digital masters of recordings currently at risk and unavailable for public consumption.

    Based on prior audio preservation experience, Goldsmith said that over the two-year period of the grant, he expects the project will make accessible about 850 hours of audio recordings.

    “We’re doing some serious first aid with this project, and we’re just in time,” Goldsmith said. “Many of these languages are not going to be around in 50 years, so if we don’t preserve these recordings, they could simply be gone.”

    The project, which started July 1, is reflective of a trend moving through the field of linguistics as a whole, Goldsmith said. In moving the audio recordings to the Web, they will now be available to indigenous communities, in some cases for the first time.

    “It used to be that your constituency was your academic community,” he said, explaining that when many of these recordings were first made, as long as 100 years ago in some instances, it was the norm that the information became the property of the researcher, university or college. “Now we can see more clearly the ethical implications of those actions, and so your constituency is as much the indigenous community as it is the academic community.”

    By posting the languages online, researchers are reintroducing “important cultural artifacts” to communities, such as discussions of everyday life, legends and even some music. Some of the stories may have been lost to the native community, or they may have changed their form. Making them available will allow comparison with current cultural artifacts, Goldsmith said.

    The project also reflects another trend in linguistics. Formerly part of anthropology, the field of linguistics broke off on its own in the 1920s. Here at the University, the Department of Linguistics was established in 1928. At that time, most research was conducted on documenting North American languages. With the Chomskian revolution, however, the mental aspects of language dominated the study of linguistics between the 1960s and the 1990s. Only now has there been resurgence in the field of documentation.

    Alan Yu, Assistant Professor in Linguistics, is working on his own language documentation project for the Washo community, Native Americans living in California and Nevada around Lake Tahoe. Of the 1,000 to 2,000 Washo tribe members alive today, only about 13 people, all in their 60s, speak the language fluently. Yu, who is still in the beginning stages of applying for funding, hopes to first document the language and then help create a pedagogical program so others in the community can learn it.

    “This is why documentation projects are so important,” Yu said. “You can’t teach a language until you know what you’re teaching.”

    Yu has been making a few one- or two-week-long trips a year to Lake Tahoe for the past couple of years to begin taping. So far, he has collected creation stories, descriptions of food preparation and tales of rituals and interactions with neighboring tribes. To get that sort of access, he first had to promise that he would not own or profit from any of the recordings. Another linguist previously made 50 years of recordings, but now will not share the tapes with the tribe.

    “There is a new surge of cooperation between communities and linguists, and we have to be very careful with that if we want to avoid the distrust that existed for so long,” Yu said. “What you can learn scientifically from languages is so important, but there is more at stake than that. Because you’re not just learning a language, you’re learning a culture and a way of life, one that in many cases is no longer in existence.”