Loosing Languages

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Oct 13 20:14:50 UTC 2003


Experts speak out to save Midwestern tribal tongues

By Tom Nugent
Special to the Tribune

October 12, 2003

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Drop by professor Helen Roy's Native American
linguistics class at Michigan State University on a typical afternoon
and you'll probably find her drilling a dozen students on
difficult-to-pronounce words such as bmijigoe.

The word, loosely translated, means a dress in the Ojibwe language once
spoken by Native Americans across the Midwest.

But teaching grammar and pronunciation to university students is only
part of 55-year-old Roy's educational mission. As a Native American,
she is engaged in a passionate struggle to save her tribal language, a
Michigan version of the Algonquin-family language, Ojibwe, from
vanishing within the next few decades.

Like Ojibwe, more than 30 Native American languages in the Midwest are
threatened with extinction during the next 20 to 30 years, according to
linguistics researchers. Increasingly, American Indian parents are
insisting that their children concentrate on English to get good jobs,
those experts say.

Meanwhile, some Midwestern tribal leaders warn that only a handful of
their elderly members still are able to speak the native tongue
fluently and that when they die, the traditional language will vanish
along with them.

For Roy and many other Native American language teachers, the prospect
of "losing our language" is a potential tragedy.

"I'm teaching a language, but I'm also teaching a way of life," Roy
said. "If we lose the [Ojibwe] language, the danger is that we'll also
lose the culture to which it belongs. I don't think anyone one wants
that to happen, and that's why we work so hard in class every day."

But teachers such as Roy face an uphill battle, said Wayne State
University linguistics expert Anthony Aristar, who is directing efforts
to build a nationwide, $2 million database aimed in part at preserving
dying languages. Aristar and other researchers say that at least half
of America's 200 remaining native languages will vanish within the next

More than words disappear

"Losing a language is a major setback for everyone, because along with
the language, you will also lose all of the poems, the stories, the
songs," Aristar said. "And those things are of immense importance to
all of us as human beings.

"On the other hand, we have to accept the fact that many families choose
to have their children learn the language of the mainstream culture, so
they can land good jobs and gain economic power."

Aristar predicts that perhaps as many as 500 of the world's
approximately 6,500 languages will become extinct in the next few
decades. He said the chances for preserving the 30 or so Native
American tribal languages still spoken in the Midwest are "not very
good, if you look at the history involved."

"I think the Native American languages that will survive are probably
those in the West--Navajo, for example--where the local Indian tribes
were not nearly as injured and fragmented as those around the Great

"Unfortunately, I think it will be very difficult for [Midwestern]
languages such as Potawatomi and Ojibwe to survive beyond the next few
decades," he added.

Regardless of the long odds against them, however, many Native American
language researchers and teachers are not giving up the fight.

"I spend a lot of time working with tribal elders and doing my best to
tape and preserve their language," said Monica Macaulay, a University
of Wisconsin linguistics professor who has spent six years compiling a
dictionary of the Menominee language spoken by the 8,800-member
Menominee Nation in Wisconsin.

"We have collected more than 11,000 words for this bilingual
dictionary," said Macaulay, "and that's important because there are
only about 40 elderly members of the tribe who can still speak the
language fluently. I'm trying to document as much of the language as I
can, so I drive out there [to the Menominee reservation] every month
and tape and tape and tape!"

Roland Marmon, a North Dakota Turtle Mountain Ojibwa who teaches at
White Earth Tribal and Community College in Mahnomen, Minn., said it is
important for Native Americans to study their languages to preserve
their cultural identity.

`Sense of empowerment'

"Many of our students find that studying Ojibwe is a good way to get in
closer touch with their own culture," Marmon said. "For students who
feel like they've lost their Native American roots, learning the
original language can bring a new sense of empowerment and identity."

George Cornell, director of the Native American Institute and a
professor of linguistics at Michigan State, said there are "important
historical reasons to study languages," regardless of their future

"All you have to do is ask, `Why study Latin?'--a language that's been
dead for a thousand years--and then you realize how much these Native
American languages have to teach us," said Cornell, a Native American.

To illustrate how language can "open a window" on culture, he cited an
incident several years ago when he asked a tribal member in Ontario,
Canada, to define the word aki. The Ojibwe word usually is translated
as the Earth.

"The elder thought about it for a while," Cornell explained, "and then
he looked at me and said, `Aki means that which is sacred!'"

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