Tribes Lost Language
Mar 03, 2008 10:39 PST
The first time Jose Freeman heard his tribe's lost language through the
crackle of a 70-year-old recording, he cried. "My ancestors were
speaking to me," Freeman said of the sounds captured when American
Indians still inhabited California's Salinas Valley. "It was like coming
The last native speaker of Salinan died almost a half-century ago, but
today many indigenous people are finding their extinct or endangered
tongues, one word or song at a time, thanks to a linguist who died in
1961 and scholars at the University of California, Davis, who are
working to transcribe his life's obsession.
Linguist John Peabody Harrington spent four decades gathering more than
1 million pages of phonetic notations on languages spoken by tribes from
Alaska to South America. When the technology became available, he
supplemented his written records with audio recordings — first using wax
cylinders, then aluminum discs. In many cases his notes provide the only
record of long-gone languages.
Martha Macri, who teaches California Indian Studies at UC Davis and is
one of the principal researchers on the J.P. Harrington Database
Project, is working with American Indian volunteers to transcribe
Harrington's notations. Researchers hope the words will bridge the
decades of silence separating the people Harrington interviewed from
Freeman hopes his 4-month-old great-granddaughter will grow up with the
sense of heritage that comes with speaking her ancestors' language.