Tribe's Lost Language

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Mar 3 18:40:04 UTC 2008

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 home."

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  
their descendants.

Freeman hopes his 4-month-old great-granddaughter will grow up with  
the sense of heritage that comes with speaking her ancestors' language.
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