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Yale linguists part of effort to save dying languages

By William S. Mauldin

Linguist Douglas H. Whalen, founder and president of the Endangered Language Fund.

What do Klamath, Choctaw, Kuskokwim, Jingulu, and Yuchi have in common? They are among the 3,000 languages worldwide that are unlikely to survive the next century. The Endangered Language Fund (ELF), a national organization which includes two linguists from Yale, is devoted to the preservation of languages that are in danger of becoming extinct.

Because society pressures younger generations to learn more "marketable" languages such as English, Spanish, and Chinese, lesser-known languages are dying at an astounding rate.

"Saving them is a very difficult and time-consuming task," Douglas H. Whalen, ELF founder and president, said. Whalen, a linguist at Haskins Laboratory, started the Fund four years ago. Haskins Laboratory, which is located on Crown St. and houses the linguistics department, receives funding primarily from the federal government, but Yale University and the University of Connecticut provide additional support.

Whalen said that the best ways to preserve dying languages are to create dictionaries, to record native speakers, and to produce video dramas using the language.

For example, the ELF-funded dictionary projects for the Tohono O'odham and Comanche languages, both spoken in the American Southwest. A dictionary allows members of a younger generation who may not feel comfortable using their parents' language to improve their vocabulary and boost their confidence. Whalen noted, however, that a dictionary cannot completely preserve all languages. Navajo words, for example, can be 30 syllables long; no one could compile all the possible combinations of suffixes, prefixes, and infixes for each.

For languages with only a handful of speakers, linguists record audio and video samples. Klamath, a Native American language spoken in Oregon, had only two living speakers when the ELF began funding its preservation. Last fall, however, one of the speakers died, leaving only one. "Nobody that is working from a single speaker thinks that they can bring the language back," Whalen said. Recording the language will at least prevent it from disappearing entirely.

ELF-funded linguists in Oklahoma are preserving the Creek and Choctaw languages with video dramas starring native speakers. Whalen noted that video dramas are yet "another way of keeping things going."

Professor Stephen Anderson chairs the linguistics department at Yale and is on the ELF board. "I'm pleased that the fund with all modesty has been able to support a variety of languages," Anderson said. As an ELF board member, Anderson "provide[s] a liaison between the Fund and the linguistics department at Yale."

Whalen said that ELP expects to work primarily in the United States, but he added that his group has also funded projects in a variety of nations, including Botswana, Argentina, Russia, Australia, and Indonesia.

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