NEH and NSF Award $4.5 Million to Preserve Languages Threatened With Extinction

43 new awards announced to document endangered languages


The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) yesterday announced the award of five fellowships, 32 institutional grants, and six doctoral dissertation research awards totaling $4.5 million in the agencies’ ongoing Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) program.

This is the eighth round of their campaign to document languages threatened with extinction. Experts estimate that more than half of the approximately 7,000 currently-used human languages are bound for oblivion in this century, and the window of opportunity for high-quality language field documentation, they say, narrows with each passing year.

These new DEL awards will support digital documentation work on almost 30 endangered languages spoken in Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas; enhance the computational infrastructure of the field; and provide training for the next generation of researchers.

It is important to document endangered languages for the wealth of linguistic and cognitive information that they offer. Advances in information technology allow for work on endangered languages that has not previously been possible.

“Endangered languages are at risk of becoming extinct,” said NSF Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences Myron Gutmann. “It is paramount that we create and use advances of information technology and interdisciplinary science research to ensure that this linguistic and cognitive information is sustained and a comprehensive analysis is completed.”

Some DEL projects seek to provide tools to better facilitate the documentation of endangered languages.

Emily Bender of the University of Washington will develop tools that use translated texts to help understand the structure of a language more deeply than is possible without the aid of technology.

Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania is piloting a project to use mobile telephones to collect larger amounts of data on undocumented endangered languages than would ever be possible through usual fieldwork.

Kevin Scannell of Saint Louis University is developing computational resources based on material available on the internet for over 1,200 languages. These tools will help linguists, software developers and communities find texts and word frequencies, all of which will be of value in understanding and sustaining the languages.

Julia Hirschberg of Columbia University is developing a set of tools to generate pictures that will help in the understanding of how people talk about the space around them. These will be tested with speakers of Arrernte, a language of Australia.

Kristine Hildebrandt of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville will study four Tibeto-Burman languages of Nepal. In addition to developing a linguistic description of the languages, she will create a digital linguistic atlas and develop education projects in both Nepal and her home university.

In addition to the development of tools, the Documenting Endangered Languages program funds the creation of dictionaries, grammars and digital archives. This work preserves and makes accessible the language and the rich cultural information that it carries in it. A number of DEL projects will create digital archives and dictionaries.

Anthony Woodbury of the University of Texas at Austin is working to archive the very important Terry Kaufman Collection of languages of Mexico. Terry Kaufman did linguistic fieldwork on numerous languages of Mexico over his long career, and this archive of his work will be an invaluable resource to all those who are interested.

Daryl Baldwin of Miami University in Ohio is building an on-line dictionary of the Algonquian language, Illinois, working from an 18th-century dictionary. This is the oldest recorded written work on this language, now being revitalized in Oklahoma, and it is of great scientific merit in helping researchers to better understand the history of the language and its place in the language family.

Shannon Bischoff of Purdue University and Amy Fountain of the University of Arizona are collaborating in developing on-line digital resources of Coeur d’Alene, a language formerly spoken in Idaho but which has no fluent speakers. The language is well documented, but the resources are not easily available. These digital archives will allow access to this material.

Jimmy Goodtracks runs the Baxoje Jiwere Language Project. With prior NSF funding, he has developed an encyclopedic dictionary of Baxoje Jiwere (Chiwere) that is spoken in Oklahoma. This project will allow for the creation of an audio archive that will be of great value to scholars interested in this and related languages. Chiwere holds a special place in the language family and to a number of people in the Chiwere community who are interested in learning their ancestral tongue.

Jonathan Amith of Gettysburg College leads a Nahuatl language documentation project in Mexico, where the researchers are particularly interested in developing a grammar that includes rich information on ethnobiology. The research team includes ethnobiologists as well as linguists.

José Antonio Mazzotti of Tufts University leads a team involved in documentation of Isconahua, a language of Peru with only around a dozen speakers. The team will document the language through the development of an audiovisual database and will also train both students from Tufts and members of the Isconahua community to do language documentation.

Siri Tuttle of the University of Alaska Fairbanks will develop an electronic database of sentence structures in Alaskan Athabascan languages, enabling additional fieldwork and a deeper understanding of these languages.

Timothy Montler of the University of North Texas is compiling a comprehensive on-line dictionary of Saanich, the only dialect of Northern Straits Salish in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to have a small group of first-language speakers.

A second DEL fellowship will enable John Keegan to enhance a database of approximately 17 Sara languages spoken primarily in Southern Chad. Besides adding new meanings, audio recordings and descriptions of distinctive aspects of the phonology and morphology of these languages, all of the data will be permanently archived.

Several scholars aim to produce grammars of languages. For instance, abriela Caballero-Hernández of the University of California San Diego will write a reference grammar of the Mexican language, Choguita Rarámuri (Tarahumara).

Doctoral dissertation awards will allow for further documentation of languages.

Emily Gasser, under the direction of Claire Bowern of Yale University, is involved in documenting Wamesa, an Austronesian language of Indonesia. Gasser will spend six months doing fieldwork, and will write a reference grammar, focusing on interesting aspects of the sound structure and word structure of the language.

Chris Donlay, under the direction of Carol Genetti of the University of California Santa Barbara, will document Katso, a language in China with 5,000 speakers. Speakers of this language have long been in contact with speakers of other languages and this research project will contribute to the understanding of language contact and change.

A major goal of DEL is to enhance the training of both academic linguists and community members in documentary linguistics. A number of recently awarded DEL projects support this goal.

Another DEL grant will enable Lisa Conathan and Leanne Hinton to hold a Breath of Life Workshop at the National Museum of the American Indian in 2013, following up on the successful workshop held in 2011. This workshop will bring in members of indigenous communities from across the country to learn how to use archival materials about their languages.

Bruce Cain of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation is organizing Breath of Life workshops to train speakers to use the rich documentation of the Ahtna language of Alaska, as well as to develop materials for teaching the language.

Grants to conferences also support training. For instance, Andrea Berez of the University of Hawai’i will organize a series of master classes on topics such as ethnomusicology, kinship systems, and oral history at the Third International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation. This training will enhance the quality of fieldwork.




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