Saving Native American Languages

May 31, 2014 by

Hupa_Yurok_Karok_colorSadly, we have come very close to never being able to learn about the linguistic peculiarities of many Native North American languages, such as Hupa, Karuk, and Yurok since they are all severely endangered. In pre-contact times, there were an estimated 2000 speakers of Hupa (including Chilula and Whilkut, usually Hupa dialects of Hupa,). Today the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, claims that “there are fewer than a half-dozen first-language speakers of Hupa remaining”. The Ethnologue lists Hupa as having 8 speakers in 1998. The UNESCO list of endangered languages gives a more optimistic estimate of 12 speakers. The numbers of Karuk and Yurok speakers are similar: in pre-contact times, there may have been 1500 speakers of Karuk and 2500 speakers of Yurok; today, there are fewer than a dozen first-language speakers of each language remaining.

Can such languages be saved from extinction? The Hoopa Valley Tribe has supported language revitalization efforts since the 1970s and many people have developed a degree of second-language proficiency. Kayla Carpenter is optimistic about the program. Formerly my student at Stanford and now a 22-year-old graduate student at University of California Berkeley, Kayla – who is of Hupa, Karuk and Yurok heritage – hopes to help revitalize the dying language of her people. Her optimism is fueled by the fact that “a younger generation has shown enthusiasm for learning the language”. Kayla herself learned Hupa and Yurok at the Hoopa Valley High School, which also teaches Karuk. This is a welcome change from past practices, when teachers at the Hoopa Valley boarding school punished children, including Kayla’s own great-grandmother, if they spoke the native language, forcing them to scrub floors or confining them to the basement. Now, Kayla’s mother teaches the language at the high school, which makes Kayla the second generation of Hupa revivalists. Still, she may very well be the first to use an education in linguistics to help the process. Her training helps her to teach Hupa more effectively by explaining to teachers how people learn language and by connecting elders’ speaking skills with grammar and pronunciation skills needed by Hupa learners. As part of this process, she has been working an online Hupa dictionary that has become available last month through collaboration of several graduate students at the Linguistics Department of University of California Berkeley, including Kayla, with Verdena Parker, a native speaker. This Hupa project team is also compiling a multimedia corpus of annotated and analyzed texts from a variety of speech genres, which will include audio and video recordings. When complete, this body of information will serve as a foundation for a description of Hupa syntax in diverse spoken contexts. Similar work is also being conducted with Yurok: a Preliminary Yurok Dictionary, compiled in 2005, and a text corpus of the language, already containing over 5000 sentences, are being constantly updated with additional new field data; regular Yurok grammar workshops are conducted during the academic year; and the annual summer Yurok Language Institute is sponsored by the Yurok Tribe.

For people like Kayla Carpenter and her peers this work means two things: breathing new life into their ancestral tongues and adding to the glorious roster of over 80 Berkeley Ph.D. dissertations on indigenous languages. But other Native American enthusiasts are approaching the language revitalization problem is a completely different way: they make a commitment to raise their children as native speakers of the indigenous language. Elly and Phil Albers are both Karuk, but when Elly conceived their first child, they were not fluent in their ancestral language. Elly grew up with a Karuk father and a non-Karuk mother. Though they were not native speakers of the language, Elly’s parents raised Elly, her twin sister and her brother with as much Karuk tradition and language as possible. They even translated Sesame Street books into Karuk. Elly’s husband Phil had grown up in Yreka with a Karuk father and Choctaw mother. As a child, he carried around a Karuk phrase book and pestered the old folks for words. When he was 19, he and another tribal member studied together, poring over the technical Karuk language book written by the tribe’s official linguist, Bill Bright, in the 1950s. Still, he was far from being fluent in the language. Elly and Phil’s home-immersion plan has met many challenges: their own inadequacies with the language, English surround-sound everywhere they went, few Karuk-speaking peers for their kids to practice with. But they – and other members of the Karuk tribe –persevere, learning from such success stories as the revitalization of Hawaiian, which has gone from having just 50 fluent speakers 20 years ago to as many as 27,000 today.


* There is a great deal of controversy surrounding both Penutian and Hokan language families. The more inclusive proposals, such as those that include some languages of Mexico and even further south in the Penutian family, are highly contentious. However, it appears that linking up the “Penutian languages of California” and the “Penutian languages of the Plateau and Pacific Northwest” has good evidentiary support. Similarly, the more conservative version of the Hokan hypothesis garner more supporters than the more inclusive ones.



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