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Professors Marianne Mithun and Wallace Chafe from the University of California in Santa Barbara visited the Department of General Linguistics of the University of Helsinki in February.

    Endangered North American Indian languages

    Leena Itkonen

    Professors Marianne Mithun and Wallace Chafe from the University of California in Santa Barbara visited the Department of General Linguistics of the University of Helsinki in February. They have both specialised in North American Indian languages, and during the space of a week they gave a number of linguistic lectures with examples from languages spoken by the Indians.

    Professor Marianne Mithun has mainly studied the Mohawk, Cayuga, and Tuscarora languages of the Iroquoian language family spoken on the North American east coast in the State of New York and the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and the Central Pomo and Chumash languages spoken in California. Lately she has been studying an Inuit language called Central Alaskan Yup'ik. In her studies Mithun has concentrated on language change, the development of grammar, and the differences between various languages. For her, one of the greatest challenges is the small number of written sources in Indian languages. In fact, a researcher is unusually fortunate to find some older written material on these languages. Mithun has therefore studied the present state of various kindred languages and this way reconstructed the original languages.

    Professor Wallace Chafe has also studied languages belonging to the Iroquoian language family: the Seneca and Onondaga languages spoken in the State of New York. He has also studied the Caddo language spoken in Oklahoma. Through the Indian languages he also became more generally interested in the differences between spoken and written languages and the way language shapes human mental processes.

    Apart from Mohawk, all the languages studied by Mithun and Chafe are in danger of becoming extinct. For instance, there are only fifteen speakers of Caddo left. In the next ten to twenty years there will probably be no one to speak these languages. This places a great responsibility on the researcher. "We won t get answers later to the questions we don t ask now," Mithun says. "And if we document something incorrectly, nobody will correct it afterwards."


    There are several reasons for the extinction of languages

    The extinction of Indian languages started long ago and mainly affected the west coast. On the east coast the Indian languages belonged to large language families and were closely related, whereas in California the number of language families was higher and fewer people spoke the same language. Chafe and Mithun estimate that in California there were originally 50 100 languages which belonged to 23 different language families. However, illnesses brought by the whites and the Indians' lack of immunity, the gold rush, and the conquest of the land soon extinguished several small language families.

    The extinction of languages has continued down to the present day, but for new reasons. "One reason behind the decrease in the number of speakers has been television," says Mithun. "With television young people realised that outside the community people spoke a completely different language. Their own language was only spoken by some fuddy-duddies at home."

    However, according to Mithun, an even bigger cause behind the extinction of Indian languages has been the state schools and boarding schools. "The idea was to provide Indian children with good education, to teach them English and prepare them for the modern world. No one thought that the Indian languages had their own importance and it was valuable to speak them. The ability to speak an Indian language was not appreciated at all; in fact, children were punished if they spoke their own languages. Many parents thought later that they didn't want their children to suffer the same way and spoke English to them. They meant well and didn t realise that the languages would gradually become extinct," says Mithun.

    "Indians were educated to become more like the white man," Chafe continues. "Education has become more homogenous throughout the whole country, and Indian children have been educated the same way as everybody else, in English. There are more opportunities now, but better opportunities have always implied the use of English. Bilingualism has been forgotten." The increasing mobility in post-war American society also affected the Indian languages: "Many Indians went to work outside the reservations and got married there. Society became more mixed and the number of English-speaking intermarriages grew."


    Education in Mohawk

    Some communities have started to improve the status of the Indian languages. In Mohawk communities the parents can decide when their child is four years old whether he/she is educated in English or Mohawk. A special curriculum has been prepared for education in Mohawk. According to Mithun the results have been encouraging. "The children have realised what a heritage they share. Thanks to the special curriculum, the gap between the children's lives and the life represented by the school no longer exists. The world in the textbooks is also the world of the children, unlike earlier, when Indian children studied books where the fathers of blond little girls went to work dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase."

    However, the road to the special curriculum was long and hard. First the authorities in the Province of Quebec had to be convinced that Mohawk was a real language and could also be a proper subject of study. Future teachers needed a degree in pedagogics and Mohawk. "Nevertheless, they still have to seek justification and prove that education in Mohawk is real education," says Mithun.

    In many communities, the native speakers of Indian languages are quite old and very few are left. "In order for the children to learn the Indian language, it has to be part of their world," says Mithun. However, most Indian languages are not as fortunate as Mohawk. "It is very unusual for there to be several thousand speakers of an Indian language. Even Navaho, the greatest Indian language with 120,000 150,000 speakers, is endangered, since it is the first language of fewer and fewer children," says Chafe.


    Linguists help to find a written form for the language

    Linguists gain information from language speakers for their own research, but the relationship between the linguist and the community can also work the other way round. "When a language has been at risk of extinction, many communities have sought help from linguists. Some communities have employed us to work for them," says Chafe. The Mohawk community, for example, called Mithun for help.

    According to Mithun and Chafe, several communities have needed linguists to help them write their languages. "We are in a way technical advisers. We tell them what will work and what will not. In trying to develop the written form, we have to make a number of choices," Mithun explains. "First we have to consider whether to use the Roman alphabet or some special system. Then we have to decide what letters to use for different phonemes, and whether one letter stands for the whole syllable or just one phoneme. We also have to consider the neighbours, if they speak almost the same language; communities sometimes want to apply the same writing system in order to be able to use the same written material. Six Mohawk communities, for example, have done this. Sometimes a community may want the system to look different from a kindred language in order to demonstrate their difference from another community. The choice of a system bears a great deal of religious, social, and political significance," Mithun concludes.

    Chafe has been astonished at the amount of emotional attachment to certain ways of writing. The difficulty of writing also makes him wonder. "If we have a language that no one has ever written, it is incredibly difficult to teach people to write it. It is only regarded as a spoken language," says Chafe. He developed a writing system for Seneca. "Even fluent speakers make mistakes in the written language. The funny thing is that I am in fact the only one who is able to write Seneca," Chafe says with a laugh.