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UC Berkeley "Breath of Life" conference strives to revive California Indian languages
03 June 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - In hopes of reviving ancestral California Indian languages that have only a few living speakers left, or in many cases, none at all, representatives from the Chukchansi, Barbareņo Chumash, Northern Pomo, Maidu, Wukchumni, Yowlumni, Wappo and other groups are gathering this week at the University of California, Berkeley.

Nearly 50 representatives from 29 of the 85 endangered or "dormant" California Indian languages will be on hand June 2-8 for a crash course in linguistics at the fifth biennial "Breath of Life-Silent No More" language restoration workshop. Unlike other language restoration efforts, the UC Berkeley program is aimed at those languages with no remaining fluent speakers.

"Language death is a symptom of the death of a culture and a way of life," said Leanne Hinton, UC Berkeley professor of linguistics and the director of the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, a research group within UC Berkeley's Linguistics Department.

"When a language dies, the world loses a whole body of knowledge and verbal art, and the people whose language dies lose a sense of their identity within the world," said Hinton. "This workshop serves indigenous California people who recognize this loss and are striving to save their languages from extinction."

Word is spreading about this type of work and "language revitalization is really taking off around the world," Hinton said.

The workshop is co-sponsored by the survey and by Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. Grants from the Lannan Foundation and the Sociological Initiatives Fund help finance the popular workshop whose roster this year grew substantially.

Hinton finally limited the group to 50. All participants are part or full California Indians, except for a woman from Texas who hopes UC Berkeley can teach her how to better use materials she has assembled to revitalize the Texas Indian language of Cohuilteco.

Breath of Life participants start out receiving phonetic name tags and move on to explore a wide range of the campus's linguistic and anthropological resources: field notes, dissertations and tapes that may contain language word lists or tribal stories and rituals with words, written phonetically, from California Indian languages.

They look at UC Berkeley materials relating to their languages, tour archives and libraries, and get help identifying and locating published and unpublished notes and audio tapes made by researchers. They examine wax cylinders, used by early researchers to make sound recordings of voices now gone.

Participants also learn the basics of linguistic analysis, how to read phonetic writing, and how to use linguistic information along with publications to create language restoration materials. And each dialect represented at the workshop is assigned a mentor, usually a graduate student researching the language.

They can attend lectures and tutorials.

Some participants will join the workshop for the first time; others have been here before, finding help and hope.

Even with stellar resources and guidance, the task is daunting and demanding, Hinton said. But Breath of Life boasts success stories.

One is that of the Mutsun language, one of eight Ohlone/Constanoan dialects once spoken along the Central California coast. The last speaker believed to be fluent died in 1930.

Quirina Luna-Costillas and Lisa Carrier are attending Breath of Life for the fourth time, having only missed one workshop since the program's inception 10 years ago. Joining them is Natasha Warner, a former graduate student who is now a University of Arizona professor. She has been a mentor for them since their first workshop.

Warner, whose specialty is experimental phonetics, said that while theoretical research is important, working with the Mutsun language is the most rewarding part of her work.

Today, Mutsun language revitalization efforts include an English-Mutsun dictionary, a useful phrase book, the Mutsun story of the thunder, a Mutsun translation of "Green Eggs and Ham" and teaching some Mutsun children their ancestral language at home.

Luna-Costillos said her young son might have been the first person in 100 years to utter his first word in Mutsun: "tatay", or touch.

Breath of Life participants are asked to develop a specific goal for the week, such as being able to revive a particular ceremony or prayer, maybe a song or story, in their language.

At an opening session on Sunday night that began with a blessing in Mutsun, one Central Coast Pomo participant said he will concentrate on learning about available reference materials in his language to help those who follow him. Another participant, a Northern Pomo, said he hopes to learn the grammar and phonetics of his language, so he can teach his daughter the language he was unable to learn as child.

The last day of the workshop coincides with the start of the two-day, 50th anniversary celebration of the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, a research center and archive which provides workspace for scholars and students specializing in the field as well as funding for fieldwork. Workshop participants will launch that event Saturday morning, June 8, when they report the results of their week.

The Breath of Life workshop and the survey celebration will be at UC Berkeley's Dwinelle Hall, just northwest of Sather Gate.