Keeping Native tongues out of the pickling jar
Keeping Native tongues out of the pickling jar
After decades devoted to breathing life into dying California languages,
linguist Leanne Hinton views her profession's value as far more than
By Barry Bergman, Public Affairs | 07 March 2007
Leanne Hinton first heard the faint cry of dying languages at the bottom of
Havasu Canyon, a 3,000-foot-deep cut in the Colorado Plateau beloved by
backpackers for its clear, towering waterfalls. A remote branch of the
Grand Canyon reachable only by foot, helicopter, or pack animal, this
ancient chasm is home to the 650-member Havasupai tribe, which has
inhabited the village of Supai for eight centuries. When Hinton, then a
Berkeley undergrad, hiked the eight-mile trail down to the village in the
summer of 1964, the Havasupais had no system of written language.
Hinton was instrumental in changing that. And that summer in Supai changed
her as well, planting the seeds of a career and a calling as a champion
of vanishing Indian languages, working closely with tribal members
throughout California to combat further erosion of the state's
ever-dwindling language diversity. As part of Berkeley's linguistics
faculty since 1978, including three years as department chair, she has made
it her mission through both her writings and her hands-on language
conferences and workshops to keep the fires of Native languages burning.
"When we lose languages we're losing knowledge," says the soft-spoken
Hinton, who estimates that of the more than 100 languages indigenous to
what is now California, only half still have living speakers. "We're losing
not just a set of words or a grammar and of course that's very important
to linguists but, more broadly, we're losing whole philosophical systems,
oral-literature systems, ceremonial systems, and social systems along with
the language. So language is one of an array of cultural phenomena that are
For Hinton, however, the wider impacts of such losses are secondary to the
toll on and the inspiration of the people whose ancestors were fluent
in Karuk, Miwok, Mutsun, and scores of languages and dialects that today
have only a few, if any, remaining speakers.
"I'm really involved in this because of the passion of the people in these
communities who are losing languages," explains Hinton, who last year
received a Cultural Freedom Award from the Lannan Foundation. "The
important thing about language survival is that people see it as a part of
their human rights. And it is. People have the right to retain their
language, and have a right to retain their culture if that's what they want
Growing up in La Jolla, Hinton never expected to make a career of
preserving and resurrecting moribund languages, or even as was customary
then in linguistics merely documenting them. "My own journey to the
languages of California has been long and full of detours," she wrote in
the introduction to her 1994 book Flutes of Fire. The journey began,
fittingly, in Arizona, with a language, Havasupai, that is relatively
Hinton traveled to Supai not as a linguist but as a budding
ethnomusicologist. Her father, a retired marine biologist, is the renowned
folk musician Sam Hinton, and she herself studied folk and ethnic music
well into grad school. Her change in direction was set when she told her
academic adviser, the late Berkeley folklorist Alan Dundes, that she hoped
to do field work somewhere within driving distance over the summer break.
"He just said right out, 'Well, the Havasupais might be an interesting
place to go, no one's really studied their music,'" she recalls.
What the 22-year-old undergrad found beyond new friends and a culture
that took her in and reshaped her outlook was that "sung and spoken
language were very different from each other," a discovery that fascinated
her and became the basis of a course she would later teach at Berkeley.
"There were all kinds of very interesting things going on in the texts of
the music," such as the use of archaic words and non-word sounds that
nonetheless conveyed meaning. "I was very interested in this whole notion
of meaning versus words," she says. "What really got me into linguistics
was my interest in that aspect of ethnomusicology."
Hinton eventually went on to earn her Ph.D. in linguistics at UC San Diego,
and soon accepted a teaching job with the University of Texas. The
Havasupais, meanwhile for whom she'd been writing a monthly newspaper
column on "how to write your language" since her grad-school days asked
her to head up their fledgling bilingual-education program. She accepted,
making the 900-mile trip to Supai from Dallas every two weeks.
The experience was an eye-opener for Hinton. Havasupai "is not what we call
a moribund language, because kids are still learning it," she explains,
pronouncing it "a little bit endangered." But tribal leaders, worried by
the growing encroachment of English on their ancestral tongue, viewed the
burgeoning bilingual-ed movement of the 1970s as a model they could apply
successfully in their own schools. Many other North American tribes, says
Hinton, were also creating programs to teach a range of subjects in
students' Indian languages.
"They saw bilingual education as a way to turn around the process of
language decline they had been going through, and that had started, of
course, with the schools," she says. "They had gone through this long
period of boarding-school education, where the languages were absolutely
not allowed in the schools and weren't allowed on the playgrounds, or in
the dorms, or anywhere, as a way to try to actually kill off the languages
and have everybody become monolingual English speakers.
"So this was an opportunity, all of a sudden, for the languages to come
back to school, and to regain some of the respect from tribal members that
they had lost," she says. That, however, required a standardized writing
system, something most Western tribes didn't have. Hinton worked with the
tribe to develop one, and in 1984 published the first Havasupai dictionary.
Yet even though children could speak Havasupai "one of only 20 [Native]
languages in North America that kids are still learning at home," Hinton
says she detected some problems. The most serious was the lack of
immersion in the second language, with teachers and students alike
constantly slipping back into English.
"Even with Havasupais, where everyone knew the language, teachers would
start out in English, saying, 'Okay, kids, today we're going to talk about
the colors in Havasupai,'" she says. "Teachers would tell me, 'When I write
Havasupai I think in English, and translate.' Because writing itself was
sort of this English thing that you do, and it was hard to transfer."
"It got me very interested in the whole idea of immersion as a
language-teaching method and as a way of interacting," Hinton adds. By the
early 1980s by which time she was an assistant professor of linguistics
at Berkeley, and accepting invitations from California tribes to speak on
the topic of teaching language the technique was of far more than mere
Speaking equals success
In addition to leading language workshops with a focus on immersion, Hinton
began writing a monthly column for News From Native California, a journal
started by Berkeley publisher Malcolm Margolin. (She retired the column
after 10 years, collecting some of the essays in edited form in Flutes of
Fire.) In 1992 she joined Margolin and Tongva/Ajachemem artist and tribal
activist L. Frank Manriquez in putting together a major conference on how
to save Indian languages, an event she views as a watershed.
"It was a very historic conference," she says. "Before that, everybody was
doing their own separate things, and feeling pretty lonesome. And all of a
sudden they were with other people who shared the same interests. It was a
tremendously positive, emotional gathering."
The conference gave birth to a group called Advocates for Indigenous
California Language Survival (AICLS), with Hinton as a founding board
member. The nonprofit now runs a number of programs aimed at putting into
practice an essential key to language survival, but which Hinton says came
as something of a surprise: the need for new speakers of the old languages.
"To a linguist this was a real learning experience, because when linguists
say, 'Oh, we've got to save these languages,' they often mean 'let's
document them,'" observes Hinton. And while she agrees that documentation
is "exceedingly important," it's not enough to save a language. "A lot of
people were saying that 'documenting the language is pickling the language
we don't want documentation, we want new speakers, and that's what we
want to focus on.'"
And that, in fact, is where Hinton has focused much of her own energy
that is, when she isn't teaching Berkeley students, directing the Survey
for California and Other Indian Languages, curating the sound collections
at the Hearst Museum and the Berkeley Language Center, conducting
linguistics research, or writing books and articles. (In addition to works
of scholarship, her eight published books include How to Keep Your Language
Alive, a handbook for one-on-one teaching of endangered languages, and a
children's book, Ishi's Tale of Lizard, a 1993 nominee for a PEN Center USA
West Literary Award.)
Under the auspices of AICLS, Hinton oversees weeklong "Breath of Life"
workshops on campus every other summer "I had originally called it the
Lonely Hearts Language Club," she laughs, "but I was overruled" at which
tribal members gather to learn new techniques for learning, teaching,
researching, and preserving languages that have no speakers. She also
created the Master-Apprentice Program, which pairs an elder speaker with a
younger tribal member who wishes to learn the language.
And whether or not a particular language still has a living speaker, Hinton
makes sure those interested in endangered languages are able to take full
advantage of Berkeley's archives, which she says "represent one of the
largest collection of documents on California Indian languages in the
world, maybe the biggest."
"One of the most important things people learn is that they can come back
here anytime," she says. "A lot of people say they were terrified of
Berkeley, that they would never have come on their own. That they are
actually allowed to go into a library or an archive and study the materials
is something they had no idea about."
Such efforts, Hinton believes, are paying off.
"I think what constitutes success is people using the language," she
explains. "And what I see is that people are. Any word they know, they're
figuring out places where they can use it every day tribal councils
saying, 'Okay, you have to vote yes or no in our language, even if those
are the only two words we know.' People are developing their own archives
and libraries with copies of all the materials on the language. People are
developing curriculum materials, dictionaries, phrase books. And so what's
happening is that the languages are coming into use again."
As a preface to Flutes of Fire, Hinton offers up a Maidu tale that explains
the origin of Indian languages and provides the book's title. Mouse, the
story goes, was sitting atop the assembly house, "playing his flutes and
dropping coals through the smokehole," when Coyote interrupted him. As a
consequence, only people in the middle of the house received fire; today,
when the others talk, "their teeth chatter with the cold." The reason
Indians have so many different languages, the tale concludes, is that "all
did not receive an equal share of fire."
For many, the fire is in danger of going out. Hinton who still, four
decades after her first visit to Supai, finds it "much more satisfying to
be using my linguistic knowledge for some kind of real-world benefit,
rather than just writing for other linguists" is doing her best to fan
Hinton is scheduled to speak on "Native American Languages and Music: The
Role of the Archives" on March 8, at 7 p.m. in the Hearst Museum Gallery.
For details, visit the museum's website at hearstmuseum.berkeley.edu or