Tribe's Lost Language
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
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.
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