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Boise State linguists preserve endangered languages

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a little over 6,000 languages are spoken in the world today. If nothing is done by the end of this century, half of them will be extinct.

Students and professors of linguistics at Boise State recognize this startling statistic and are doing as much as they can to preserve and document endangered languages.

Tim Thornes, linguistics professor, has been involved in the documentation of Northern Paiute, a critically endangered language spoken in Idaho, Oregon and other surrounding states.

His long relationship with endangered languages like Northern Paiute began when Thornes was a graduate student and the Burns Paiute Tribe invited him to a monthly elder’s potluck.

“It seemed some of them had gotten copies of the phrase book we had created, and so I started writing things and they were correcting me and having discussions about how to write the language,” Thornes said. “It just started a long-term relationship that continues today.”

Aside from one anthropologist from Reno who studied the language part-time, no one was actively doing research on the language. So Thornes began more extensive work on the language, collaborating closely with native speakers.

During these potlucks, Thornes went on field trips with elders and drove to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to look at important cultural places and index names.

Now Thornes continues to go to Burns periodically to record oral narratives and conduct linguistic analysis.

“I’ve recorded quite a bit of autobiographical narrative because I think their cultural and historical value are really important,” Thornes said. “People like to focus on major transition times, like the transition from using the entire territory as traditional hunting and gathering grounds to the time when they were having problems with ranchers encroaching on their territory—the territory that was promised them by the federal government.”

Narratives like these provide information about what the area was like generations ago and help preserve the community’s heritage.

Senior English major Bailee Dunstan, who works with Kifuliiru, a language spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also believes language documentation plays an important role in protecting cultural diversity.

“I feel like language documentation is important because without it we would not know about how language began or even how languages evolve and change over time,” Dunstan said. “We would also be losing a lot of history of our world without language documentation because language and people are so interconnected.”

In addition to working with Northern Paiute, Thornes is also involved in a local project to preserve other Boise languages and give these languages a voice in the community.

“I’ve been working with one particular language group on documenting proverbs. So far we’ve recorded close to 300 proverbs in Ebembe,” Thornes said. “Proverbial language is sometimes more archaic and old-fashioned language, so (the speakers) have to memorize the phrases. They’ve got an internal poetry to it, and it’s really beautiful to listen to—it’s short, it’s profound, it’s got all this cool cultural stuff embedded in it.”

Dunstan’s linguistics capstone class focuses on recording a native Kifuliiru speaker to learn more about the phonetic inventory of the language and to later identify grammatical structures.

Many languages, including Kifuliiru, Northern Paiute and other indigenous languages, do not have a writing system. This is why Thornes and Dunstan have both dedicated their time to preserving these languages. Without written documents, once the last speaker dies, the language is gone forever.

“I think it’s really important for people to realize these are not dead cultures,” Thornes said in regard to Native American culture. “These are cultures that are living and still very much a part of people’s daily lives. The experiences of different groups, indigenous groups in particular, have been of low or no visibility because the mainstream sort of has this false perception that it’s all in the past. But that’s not the case.”

About Cheyene Austin (41 Articles)
Cheyene Austin is the Assistant Culture Editor. She is a creative writing major, minoring in Japanese Studies.

1 Comment on Boise State linguists preserve endangered languages

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