$3.9 million in federal grants aimed at creating electronic records of vanishing languages
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — In northern California, there are only a handful of Yurok and Karuk elders who speak their Native American language, and on the Russian Kamchatka peninsula, only about 20 people who can still converse in Itelman, another indigenous language that’s rapidly disappearing. In Oklahoma, which has the highest Native language diversity in the United States, all 39 Native languages are endangered.
Linguists say about half the world’s 7,000 spoken languages are bound for oblivion. In a race against time, linguists and ethnologists are trying to document and preserve those languages with digital dictionaries and recordings before they’re gone forever. As part of that effort, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation are helping with a series of grants, this year totaling $3.9 million, a small price to pay for preserving such a basic facet of human culture and existence.
“We must do our best to document endangered languages before they fall silent,” said National Science Foundation assistant director for social, behavioral and economic Sciences Myron Gutmann. “Endangered languages are an irreplaceable source of linguistic and cognitive information, and recent advances in information technology make it possible to integrate and analyze that body of knowledge more comprehensively.”
One of the grants will enable field workers from the University of California, Berkeley, to work with the Native Yurok and and Karuk speakers to analyze legacy field notes, narratives and other archival materials collected by several linguists during the 20th century and to collect new information about how they organize words and phrases into sentences.
Some of the funded projects seek evidence about what is universal in language, and what those universals might tell us about human cognition. With support from a grant to SUNY at Buffalo, Jürgen Bohnemeyer is investigating how people represent the concept of space in 25 languages spoken on five continents. If people talk about objects in space differently, do they also think about them differently?
“Language is integral to what makes us human,” said NEH Chairman Jim Leach. “When a language disappears before it is documented, it limits our understanding of the way that people interact with their social and natural environments. By supporting the creation of dictionaries, grammars and digital archives, the DEL program preserves and makes accessible a rich set of cultural information that reflects the traditions and accumulated wisdom of peoples who have lived and thrived on our shared planet.”
This is the seventh round of their campaign to preserve records of languages threatened with extinction. These new DEL awards will support digital documentation work on almost 50 endangered languages, enhance the computational infrastructure of the field and provide training for the next generation of researchers.
Some examples of the grant-funded projects:
Pedro Mateo-Pedro, a native speaker of Q’anjobal, will study children’s acquisition of Chuj, a related Mayan language which is among the most endangered of all the Mayan languages. Since studies of children’s language acquisition have focused primarily on Indo-European languages, this project will contribute significantly to the scope of scientific knowledge. Mateo-Pedro’s project will involve training community members in language documentation and analysis.
Awards to the University of Connecticut and the University of Alaska Fairbanks will enable Jonathan Bobaljik and David Koester to study Itelmen, a highly endangered language spoken natively by fewer than 20 persons on the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia. This collaborative project will compile audio and video for a dictionary of the Itelmen language.
Another grant will allow linguist Scott Rushforth and the Mescalero Apache Tribe to develop a dictionary and grammar of Mescalero Apache, an Athabaskan language spoken in southern New Mexico which has fewer than 900 remaining speakers. The project will analyze the complex structure of verbs in the language and contribute to comparative work on the phonetics and phonology of the entire Athabaskan language family.
A fellowship award will allow Joshua Brown of Salish Kootenai College to record and transcribe natural discourse texts in Bitterroot Salish, which has only 30 remaining speakers, mostly elderly; his project will train younger community members to conduct documentary research on their ancestral language.
Another DEL grant will support a project directed by Durbin Feeling, a fluent speaker of Cherokee and a member of the Cherokee Nation, to study the prosody of Cherokee, a severely endangered Iroquoian language. This project will add information about lexical tone and vowel length for each entry in the Cherokee Electronic Dictionary, filling a gap in the available resources on Cherokee grammar.
As part of the data collection, researchers will record and transcribe narratives, which also will capture the historical memory not only of the Mescalero, but also of the Chiricahua and Lipan Apache, throughout the period of the U.S. “settlement” of the west and post-relocation times.
Filed under: Summit County news Tagged: | Cherokee, culture, endangered languages, Indigenous languages of the Americas, Linguistics, native american languages, Native Americans, Social Sciences, United States