Revitalization of the Hupa language

May 30, 2011 by

In a recent series of postings, I’ve discussed the question of whether Modern Hebrew has been revived or created from scratch and came to the conclusion that it is the former rather than the latter. Several lessons can be learned from this success story of language revival, and the most important of them is that it takes people from inside the language community to revive a language. And this seems to be true for other language revival cases around the world.

Case in point: the Hupa language. This is a Native North American language, spoken in the town of Hoopa on the banks of the Trinity River in Humboldt County’s northeastern corner, six hours north of the San Francisco. The ethnic population of Hupa is about 225 people (according to the 2000 census). But only a few of them speak the language: according to the Ethnologue, 8 people spoke Hupa in 1998; according to the UNESCO list of endangered languages, 12 people speak Hupa. Moreover, the UNESCO list ranks Hupa as one of the critically endangered languages, which means that “the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently”. So is there hope for the Hupa language?

Kayla Carpenter thinks so. Formerly my student at Stanford and now a 22-year-old graduate student at UC Berkeley, Kayla hopes to help revitalize the dying language of her Hupa people. Her optimism is fueled by the fact that “a younger generation has shown enthusiasm for learning the language”. And the Hupa language is now being taught in the tribe’s high school, a welcome change from the earlier situation, when teachers at the Hoopa Valley boarding school punished Hupa 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 is among those teaching the language at the high school, and Kayla -— who is of Hupa, Karuk and Yurok heritage -— learned Hupa and Yurok in high school.

While Kayla belongs to the second generation of Hupa revivalists, she may very well be the first person to use her linguistics education to help the process. Her training can help the tribe teach Hupa more effectively by explaining to teachers how people learn language. It will also be handy in connecting elders’ speaking skills with grammar and pronunciation skills needed by Hupa learners. And having a Hupa dictionary will be of great help. This latter project is what Kayla and other graduate students at UC Berkeley are working on.

In fact, UC Berkeley’s Linguistics Department is a perfect place for a student interested in revitalizing local Native American languages. The department is the home of the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, which has spent six decades collecting recordings and written works on Hupa and other native languages. Survey researchers, including Kayla Carpenter and other students focused on Hupa, routinely travel to remote reservations and other sites to record the languages’ few living speakers. And the linguistics department’s first dissertation was written in 1903 on the grammar of the Hupa language. But with the most recent dissertation on Hupa dating from 1970, it’s definitely time for new research, new insights, new discoveries.

So good luck, Kayla! I am very proud of you.

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