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A final say? They hope not

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-washo21sep21%2C0%2C1852254.story COLUMN ONE A final say? They hope not Tribal elders are helping a linguist compile an
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 21, 2007

      A final say? They hope not

      Tribal elders are helping a linguist compile an online dictionary of Washo,
      a language close to extinction. More than just words are at stake.

      By Larry Gordon
      Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

      September 21, 2007

      WOODFORDS, CALIF. — In a classroom amid the dusty hills southeast of Lake
      Tahoe, an unlikely duo sit across from each other and conjugate the verb
      "to sleep." They are working in Washo, a language with, at best, an
      uncertain future.

      Elshim, to sleep. Lelshimi, I am sleeping. Elshimi, he is sleeping.
      Shelshimi, they are sleeping.

      On one side of a yellow plastic table sits Ramona Dick, a 74-year-old elder
      of the Washo tribe, a great-grandmother and retired cook whose formal
      education ended at the eighth grade but who has a deep knowledge of the
      Native American language she learned as a child.

      Facing her is Alan Yu, 30, a Hong Kong-born linguist who immigrated to
      California as a teenager, earned a doctorate at UC Berkeley and now is an
      assistant professor at the University of Chicago.

      Despite differences in age, culture and education, the two have bonded in a
      way that they hope will bring lasting results.

      What brings them together is their mutual interest in Washo, a tongue that
      tribe members estimate is spoken fluently by no more than 20 or 30 people.
      The big picture is even grimmer: Half of California's 100 Native American
      languages no longer have fluent speakers, and many of the rest have just
      five or six hanging on, experts say.

      Attempts to document, if not revive, many of those languages have been
      going on for years. The goal is to preserve more than just conversation and
      literature; a vital part of cultural identity -- what it means, for
      example, to be a Washo -- slips away when a language becomes extinct.

      Now, Yu and Dick are part of newer efforts applying contemporary technology

      Last year, Yu received a $160,000 federal grant to compile an online
      dictionary of 5,000 Washo words and phrases, complete with digitally
      recorded pronunciations by Dick and other Washo elders. Scheduled to be
      finished in 2009, the dictionary is designed partly as a tool to help
      younger Washos learn the language -- even if just a few words, such as
      da'aw (Lake Tahoe), gewe (coyote)and gu'u (maternal grandmother).

      "It's going to be lost, I think, if nobody tries to teach them," Dick said
      of Washo, which had no written form until 20th century scholars began
      transcribing it phonetically. "If the young people could learn, maybe they
      can tell their children down the line a bit that it's important to our
      tribe. Because we are not a very big tribe."

      Washo (some spell it Washoe) leaders estimate that there are about 1,500
      tribal members, mainly in the eastern Sierra on both sides of the
      California-Nevada border. Dick lives in Woodfords, in an isolated Washo
      community known as Hung-a-lel-ti (Southern Washoes) on rolling ranchland
      with stunning mountain vistas. Its 350 or so residents can walk to the
      lime-green education center, where Yu and Dick meet, but must drive 10
      miles north into Nevada for most shopping.

      During his summer and vacation-time visits to the Washo towns, Yu said, he
      tries to avoid the paternalistic attitudes that strained some past
      relationships between nonnative researchers and Native Americans. Yu, who
      spoke only Cantonese until he started elementary school, stressed that his
      goal is to document Washo, not to save it.

      "I think the consensus these days is for a language to be revitalized," he
      said. "It's really a community effort. It's something that an outsider
      can't come in and force it onto people."

      The Washos have a better chance at revitalization than many other tribes,
      scholars say. About 60 adults and teens attend several Washo language
      classes, and teachers introduce Washo words and phrases to young children
      in pre-kindergarten and after-school programs. Besides, Yu said, it is a
      "gift" to meet fluent -- and vibrant -- volunteers for the dictionary
      project like Dick, her cousin Steven James and his cousin Eleanore Smokey.

      Nevertheless, everyone agrees it will be an uphill effort against
      assimilation and English-language television. Another formidable obstacle:
      the educations of many middle-aged and elderly tribe members, who were sent
      away from Washo-speaking homes to government boarding schools that
      discouraged the use of Washo.

      Dick learned the language from a grandmother and great-grandmother, neither
      of whom had a full grasp of English. A widow, Dick says that none of her
      own five children, 18 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren really
      speak Washo, although some are trying to learn and most understand when she
      speaks at home or at a class she is leading.

      Lynda Shoshone, the tribe's language and cultural preservation coordinator,
      said she could "kick myself in the rear for not paying more attention" as a
      child when her grandmother spoke Washo. Shoshone said she knows Washo words
      but has trouble putting sentences together. However, her 22-year-old son,
      she said, attended a now-defunct immersion school and is quite fluent. So,
      she said, the language has a shot at survival.

      James, 74, is pessimistic. "There's too much competition from the
      present-day world," said the retired electrical construction worker from
      Dresslerville, Nev. "Everyday living, your job, just trying to survive in
      this world is difficult."

      Still, he and Dick are willing to spend long days, sometimes from 10 a.m.
      to 6 p.m., answering Yu's detailed lists of questions. The elders'
      responses about nouns, adjectives, verbs and sentences are captured on a
      digital recording device, and Yu's graduate students splice them and upload
      them online.

      On a recent day, Dick visited the classroom leaning on the cane she now
      requires and sat in front of the microphone. A full-faced, vivacious woman
      with a graying ponytail and gold hoop earrings, she paused only when she
      was unable to pull a word from the memory of her late grandmother's kitchen
      or when her voice got "froggy" from overuse. After all, "Dr. Yu," as she
      calls him despite his pleas for informality, "comes from far away, and when
      he does, it's always nice to sit down and talk with him."

      Wearing jeans, a pullover shirt, sneakers and squarish glasses, Yu queried
      her in a low-key and respectful manner, like a grandson fishing for a
      family story. But he also was persistent and, for accuracy, asked the same
      thing in various ways. Taking lots of handwritten notes, he wanted
      equivalents of English words and inquired about Washo words or sentences he
      had picked up from other sources.

      "Do you know how to describe someone who has a big tummy?" Yu asked. "Have
      you ever heard people talk about Ngalbuli?"

      "It means he's got, like, a pot belly," Dick responded, chuckling.

      They tackled other verbs after "sleep." How would you say, "I'm laughing?"
      Yu asked. Lasawi.

      How about a lot of people laughing? Sasawi. Can you say that one more time?
      Sasawi. To swim? Yeem. I'm swimming? Diyeemi. He's swimming? Yeemi.

      Sometimes Dick gently corrected Yu's backward word order or mangled
      pronunciations. Sometimes Yu pushed her into shades of meaning, such as the
      difference between shooting something and trying to shoot it.

      Then came nouns: paternal grandmother (ama), maternal grandfather (elel),
      maternal grandchildren (gu'yi).

      What about shrimp? She shook her head, drawing a blank. The word for fish
      is atabi, but apparently there is no word for shrimp. "There was no shrimp
      around here," she later explained, "until white men brought them into

      Yu has posted a preliminary Washo pronunciation guide online at
      http://washo.uchicago.edu and has compiled about two-thirds of the words he
      needs before he makes the dictionary and its voicing technology available
      to the public late next year. That progress is "very impressive," said
      Douglas Whalen, a program officer at the National Science Foundation's
      program known as Documenting Endangered Languages. The program, which also
      involves the National Endowment for the Humanities, is funding Yu's
      dictionary and similar work in about 60 other languages worldwide.

      "Language is part of our human heritage," Whalen said. "It's part of what
      makes us human. Not having any record of what's gone on in a language is

      The rate of world language extinction is alarming, a study sponsored by the
      National Geographic Society warned this week. Of the world's 7,000
      languages, two are disappearing every month, and half may be gone by
      century's end, including scores of Native American tongues in the
      Southwestern U.S., researchers said.

      To an English speaker, Washo sounds difficult, with frequent glottal stops
      that change meanings and a throaty "ng" sound (ngawngang is child). Verbs
      change prefixes as they shift among "I, he, we, they," and verbs also have
      several forms for the recent or distant past. Its oddities include some
      double-negative expressions, such as "I don't not know."

      Washo is very unlike the other Native American languages -- Miwok, Maidu
      and Northern Paiute -- that surround it, according to William H. Jacobsen
      Jr., a professor emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno, who conducted
      groundbreaking linguistic research on Washo starting in the 1950s and
      published a basic grammar guide in 1996.

      The tribe's linguistic isolation fed into a sense of cultural
      distinctiveness in the Indian world, even as white settlers took over
      traditional Washo fishing and hunting territory for silver mining,
      ranching, lake resorts and casinos in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jacobsen

      Jacobsen said he too is compiling a Washo dictionary, albeit a print one.
      But he is gloomy about Washo's future, although he said he hopes his work,
      language classes and Yu's dictionary will help young people learn a few
      words and phrases.

      "Even though they don't know the language or the grammar, there is some
      value in this," he said. "It gives them some identity and they can say,
      'I'm a Washo.' "

      Internet dictionaries are the latest tools for language survival but are
      not the sole answer, said former UC Berkeley linguistics professor Leanne
      Hinton. Tribes showing some success have put special effort into classes
      for children and for adults, such as the Pechangas, who are working to
      revive Luiseño in communities near Temecula, and the Yuroks in northwestern
      California, said Hinton, an expert in tribal languages.

      Those and other tribes have people "who don't want to go down without a
      fight, so to speak," said Hinton, who has helped organize the biennial
      "Breath of Life -- Silent No More" conferences at UC Berkeley that seek to
      revive endangered Native American languages in California.

      Yu, one of Hinton's former students, became fascinated with Washo when he
      was assigned to help out at one of the conferences. Hinton described Yu as
      a good match for the Washo elders: "He is extremely competent as well as
      being good with people. He is a very patient person."

      Besides Cantonese and English, Yu can speak Mandarin and has a rudimentary
      knowledge of Turkish and Russian. He has a grasp of some Washo vocabulary
      and grammar but is not fluent.

      "I am picking it up slowly. In general, I'm not a very good language
      learner. That may seem odd for a linguist to say, but linguists are not
      necessarily polyglots," said Yu, whose new book on linguistics was recently
      published by Oxford University Press.

      Last month, the Chicago professor went public with his own Washo abilities.
      The tribe held a luncheon for anyone involved in learning the language. Yu
      prepared a brief speech in Washo but was clearly nervous.

      So he first ran the speech past Dick: I'm happy to be here today. Wading
      ebe dihamu' angawi wa' le'iga' a'alu. . .

      As I do not speak Washo very well. Washiw diwagay'angaweesinga. . .

      Eat well and drink well. Gemlu'angaw geme'angaw.

      Dick gently brushed up Yu's pronunciations here and there and sought to
      calm his concerns about the lunch crowd's reaction: "They can't expect to
      hear you talking like a lawyer."

      That afternoon, about 20 people attended the baked chicken and salad
      luncheon in the education center. Melba Rakow, who teaches Washo classes in
      Nevada, offered a blessing and urged the tribe, she later translated, "not
      to throw our language down."

      Yu initially hung back a bit before screwing up his courage. Then,
      clutching his notes, he seemed to carry off the speech flawlessly,
      finishing up with "Di'nga ledinga" ("That's all I'll say.") The audience
      applauded, and Dick declared: "I think he did real well."

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