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A Race to Save Fading Native Languages

Linguistics: Berkeley workshop opens the door for members of California tribes to try to revive or maintain fast-disappearing ancestral tongues.


BERKELEY — Kelina Lobo is on a personal mission to revive the lost language of her ancestors.

When she has children, the 30-year-old Lobo said, she intends to make Ajachmem--the Indian dialect once spoken in what is now San Juan Capistrano--the exclusive voice of her household. But first she must lift the language from the dead.

Marnie Atkins has a more modest dream. "I would just like to speak to my creator in my language. Just one small prayer," she said.

Atkins, also 30, belongs to the tiny Wiyot tribe in coastal Humboldt County whose language died out decades ago, accelerated by one of the most brutal genocides in California history.

The two women were among 50 people from 29 tribes who gathered at UC Berkeley last week for the "Breath of Life--Silent No More" workshop on California Indian languages.

Most of those attending represented tribes whose languages are dormant, dying or dead. Of the 100 Indian languages of old California, fewer than 50 are still spoken, and that number is declining rapidly.

"Every California language is in danger," said UC Berkeley linguistics professor Leanne Hinton, who organized the workshop. "In most cases, we are down to just a handful of elders."

When those people die, Hinton predicts, most of those languages will vanish completely unless the tribes do something to keep them alive.

The recovery of lost language also provides insight into forgotten ways of thinking.

Lobo learned, for example, that her people used similar words for human hands and the front hoofs of animals. "You can see how they viewed animals as sentient beings, similar to humans," she said.

There are also limits in Ajachmem preventing humans from claiming possession of basic things, such as sand or water. "In our language, it is impossible to say 'My sand,' " Lobo explained.

On the other hand, there are 20 ways to say "carry"--reflecting the basic hunter-gatherer nature of early Ajachmem culture.

The only California tribes that teach their children the native language at home, Hinton said, are the Northern Paiutes and the Owens Valley Paiutes, who live along the border with Nevada. But most Paiute speakers live in Nevada and neighboring states. Lost, perhaps forever, is the great wealth of uniquely California languages--including the Southern California Chumash, Tongva, Ajachmem and Tataviam tongues.

The Berkeley workshop offered participants a way to revive or maintain the languages without the benefit of native speakers who once passed them from generation to generation.

In a weeklong crash course, the Native Californians were taught a basic phonetic alphabet to enable them to read and write their languages and were instructed in the grammatical structure. And, perhaps most important, they were introduced to existing scholarship on their languages and culture.

"The goal is for California Indians to be able to see, access and use publications in their languages collected by linguists and anthropologists over the years," said Hinton, the author of two books on California Indian languages, including a self-help manual titled "How to Keep Your Language Alive."

The lost-language workshop, the fifth since 1997, is one of several initiatives launched by Hinton, who began her Native American linguistic research in the late 1960s with the Havasupai tribe near the Grand Canyon, recording and documenting its traditional songs.

At a 1991 Indian language conference in Marin County, Hinton was dismayed as she watched elders of several California tribes come forward as the last living speakers of their tongues.

Later, she helped create Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival to maintain and reclaim native California tongues. One project pairs native speakers with students in a master-apprentice relationship, similar to one tailored for handicrafts by the California Arts Council. Another places linguists at UC Berkeley and other institutions to act as mentors for Native Californians intent on resurrecting their languages.

Berkeley publisher Malcolm Margolin credits Hinton with breaking down long-existing barriers between academicians and Native Americans, who are accustomed to being questioned and studied by scholars, but usually are not encouraged to use the research results themselves.

"Leanne has created a system for language renewal that is really different from what linguists usually do," said Margolin, who produces a quarterly magazine on California Indian affairs. "It is more of an applied linguistics with great public involvement."

The academic connection is important because, even in cases in which no living speakers remain, there is often extensive academic field work and research material, including wax recordings and phonetically rendered dictionaries of the lost languages.

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