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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Berkeley researchers go global to document endangered languages

– As the "Breath of Life" conference on California Indian language revitalization gets underway on June 8 on campus, UC Berkeley faculty and student linguists are fanning out around the globe to research and document other often endangered languages.

These efforts reflect a shift, of sorts, in linguistics. For decades, the field focused on exploring language as a cognitive phenomenon or as a host of theoretical puzzles. Today, it reflects an expanded emphasis on documentation and maintenance of languages as critical resources, with new technologies and commitments to make these efforts even more interesting, according to Leanne Hinton, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of linguistics and co-founder of the upcoming conference.

Interest by UC Berkeley students in the documentation of endangered languages and in making the information available to native communities seems to have "taken on a new life," Hinton said.

Technology is at least partially responsible for helping to stimulate this renewed interest, she said, with more and more language archives going online and becoming available to interested parties virtually wherever they may be.

The Breath of Life work is aimed at revitalization, whereas the student research is aimed at documentation of still-healthy, if endangered, languages, said Sharon Inkelas, chair of UC Berkeley's linguistics department and professor of linguistics. The June 8-14 conference and the faculty and student fieldwork represent often complementary research at different stages of the lifespan of a language, she said.

Below are examples of professors and students doing summer field work and their efforts, either in progress or planned, related to language documentation and language preservation efforts:

  • Andrew Garrett, a UC Berkeley linguistics professor, is known for his ongoing work documenting California Indian languages. He is running a project that is documenting the Yurok language, developing an archive of Yurok texts and audio recordings, and establishing language resources for the Yurok community. Garrett and his students also have worked with Yurok elders on language teaching. Garrett is creating an online multi-media Hupa language dictionary and documentation and doing related research on Northern Paiute dialects in California and Nevada.
  • Yuni Kim, a UC Berkeley graduate student in linguistics department, is in the community of Choguita, Mexico, where she is conducting fieldwork on San Francisco del Mar, a highly endangered dialect of the Huave language that is spoken by a shrinking community of about 1,000 indigenous people.
  • Lev Michael, a new assistant professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, is busy with research on Nanti and Iquit, languages spoken in Peruvian Amazonia. Michael has lived with the Nanti people and documented their language in his dissertation. He is also co-founder of the Iquito Language Documentation Project, whose aim is to document the highly endangered Iquito language, which currently has fewer than 20 fluent speakers.
  • Gabriella Caballero is a UC Berkeley Ph.D. student in linguistics who is continuing her fieldwork with a community of about 350 indigenous people in the mountains near Mexico's Copper Canyon. A native of Mexico, Caballero is interested in government efforts to maintain and promote indigenous languages. Her work is focused on an endangered language called Rarámuri.
  • Alice Gaby admits to what she calls "a healthy obsession with Australian aboriginal languages." A UC Berkeley assistant professor of linguistics, Gaby is back at a remote site in northern Australia this summer, working with an indigenous group as she documents and tries to maintain the vitality of its language, Kuuk Thayorre.
  • Erin Haynes, a UC Berkeley graduate student in linguistics, will return in August to central Oregon to continue fieldwork on Northern Paiute language revitalization. The endangered Uto-Aztecan language is spoken by, at most, 30 people on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation just east of the Cascade Mountains.

    Haynes has worked on a Northern Paiute dictionary, recorded Northern Paiute words with English translations, catalogued materials and worked to put clips of those words, phrases, conversations and stories online for tribal use — especially by young, Internet-savvy members. She said she was drawn to UC Berkeley because of its history of work with endangered and indigenous languages.

    Northern Paiutes share their reservation with the Wasco and Sahaptin tribes, but Haynes said languages spoken by these tribes, forced by federal authorities to inhabit the same land, are as similar as Spanish and Chinese. She said she found new respect from the Northern Paiutes when she began to learn her own ancestors' native and threatened language of Irish.

    Haynes, who studied anthropology as an undergraduate, said she used to view linguistics as rather sterile. "But I've become completely fascinated with everything connected to the language revitalization program," she said. "It's a human rights issue."

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