First-ever dictionary aids campaign to save Native American languages

05/23/05

A campaign to save one of the world's most complex group of languages has been given new hope by the publication of the first-ever dictionary in up to 5,000 years of the languages' existence.

The Native American languages, which are so complicated an entire sentence can be expressed in a single word, started to die out when English speakers colonised North Western America in the 19th Century.

They are collectively known as Nuuchahnulth (pronounced Noo-cha-noolth), which means 'along the mountains', a reference to the places where it is spoken, which are situated along the coast of the Vancouver Island mountain range on Canada's Western coast.

Publication of the 537-page dictionary, which will be used to support the teaching of Native Americans the language of their ancestors, will give hope to those who have expressed concern about the death of many of the world's minority languages, largely caused by economic globalisation and increased social mobility.

Today, only two to three hundred people can speak Nuuchahnulth, and most of these are aged over 60 years. There are also few written records, and experts predict it could die out in one generation if action is not taken to preserve it.

The book has been compiled by John Stonham, a Canadian-born linguist based at the UK's University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and is published by Edwin Mellen Press.

Nuuchahnulth has three basic vowels, there are 40 consonants and it has a very complex sound structure when spoken.

Dr Stonham incorporated 20-years experience of researching and writing about Nuuchahnulth into his dictionary, as well as the fieldwork materials of the linguist and anthropologist, Edward Sapir, which spans 1910-1924.

His team of researchers used a computer programme to analyse Sapir's extraordinarily detailed notes, and the resulting database consists of approximately 150,000 words of the language.

Dr Stonham, of Newcastle University's School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, said: "I hope the dictionary will help efforts to preserve the language and hence the culture of these societies, as language is intricately bound up with tradition. There is also a very strong desire by many of the younger people to speak their native tongue."

Nuuchahnulth referrs to around 15 languages, but some have disappeared since 1900 and the remainder are all on the verge of extinction. Each language has distinct differences in vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, which are acknowledged in the dictionary.

Dr Stonham, who hails from Montreal, added: "They are some of the most morphologically complex languages, which is what initially attracted me to them more than 20-years ago.

"Noam Chomsky said you can learn about all languages by studying just one. This work will contribute to a better understanding of the structure of English and many of the world's languages, not just those of the Native Americans."

The dictionary has been produced as part of a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Nicholas Ostler, president of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, which is based in Britain but has international members, said: "Every language community, however small, benefits from the publication of a dictionary of its language.

"The book stands as a permanent monument to the language for speakers (as well as for the outside world), but it also helps speakers to get a firmer conception of what their language is like, and may act as a first step to a literate tradition and the beginnings of school education in the language.

"In this way, a full dictionary of a language may be of much greater value to a community than general analysis of interesting features in the language's grammar - of which there has already been a fair amount for Nuuchahnulth, better known as Nootka.

"A dictionary often provides the greatest single step in the progress of a language to fully literate status, a status that has been achieved by only a third of the world's languages to date."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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