Native American Language Info

7 Things to Know About Native American Languages

In honor of Native American Heritage month, Colleen Fitzgerald, a linguist from the The University of Texas at Arlington Native American Languages Lab, has compiled some interesting Native American language resources.


For anyone really interested in monitoring the progress or lack of progress among indigenous languages, I recommend joining the ILAT Listserv. Posts literally cover the world and provides a great view in how different language preservation movements are progressing.

There are still many endangered languages, but it is heartening to see that places like Canada, Australia and even parts of the U.S. are beginning to recognize and officially support more indigenous languages. But as Colleen Fitzgerald notes, the U.S. Native American Languages Act of 1990 is up for reauthorization.

A Language Wanting to Die?

Speaking of native languages, there was an interesting story on the BBC about the Maidu community in California called The people who want their language to disappear

One quote indicates:

“Those that know the language don’t want to speak it. They associate it with difficult times. They don’t want to stir up… anything.”

The difficult times here refer to different efforts by the U.S. government to displace indigenous peoples and their languages. For the Maidu, there were “bounties” for scalps, relocation of people, and efforts to force children into English-only boarding schools.

This also echoes sentiments I have heard about the Irish language – namely that many people in Ireland associate the Irish language with a rural impoverished lifestyle that they feel is irrelevant in the modern world. This group in Ireland assumes that it is better to join the modern English speaking world. Of course, any Irish language specialist will tell you that Irish and Old Irish has lots to contribute to the modern world. But finding a bilingual accommodation is easier said than done.

Interestingly, the Maidu community has intermarried extensively with Welsh immigrants. Many people speaking the language actually have Welsh surnames. From an ethnic point of view, this community could more easily assimilate into an Anglo community more than other Native Americans.

A more interesting quote to me was:

“We believe the way you reach richness in life is through knowledge. It gives you power and it is your responsibility to use that wisely. If you pass that knowledge on, you are responsible for the outcome. If someone misuses the knowledge you give them, if they use it to hurt someone, you as the person who gave it to them, are responsible for that hurt.”

This speaks to a distrust of Anglo culture, including well-meaning Anglo linguists and anthropologists. Although many linguists genuinely want to help, they are part of a legacy of Anglo outsiders damaging communities they are trying to “help”. The wounds are deeper than I ever realized when I was studying linguistics. I now know that it takes years and patience for a researcher to build genuine trust within a community enough to provide genuine help.

In some ways though the last quote gives me hope. I don’t think the Maidu want their language to die. In fact some of the younger members of the community are trying to preserve it. But they definitely want to do it on their own terms.

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