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
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
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
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
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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