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Federal Agencies Take Steps to Document Endangered Languages

NEH, NSF launch effort to create digital records of dying languages

WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 5, 2005)--The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) today announced that they have awarded 13 fellowships and 26 institutional grants in their Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) partnership, a new, multi-year effort to preserve records of key languages before they become extinct. More than 3,000 of the 6,000-7,000 currently used human languages are headed for oblivion, experts estimate. The new DEL awards, totaling $4.4 million, will support digital documentation work on more than 70 such languages.

"This is a rescue mission to save endangered languages," said NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. "Language is the DNA of a culture, and it is the vehicle for the traditions, customs, stories, history, and beliefs of a people. A lost language is a lost culture. Fortunately, with the aid of modern technology and these federal funds, linguistic scholars can document and record these languages before they become extinct."

For example, a grant to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, will digitize one thousand Yup'ik audio recordings for storage at the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center and assess the feasibility of creating a Northern Indigenous Languages Archive for the 200 endangered languages of the Far North. Three DEL Fellowships will support documentation of members of the vast Austronesian language family, one spoken on Taiwan, one spoken by a Negrito people in the Philippines, and one barely still spoken on Easter Island. In a recent 22-year period, use of this language, Rapa Nui, declined among elementary school children from 77 to 7.5 percent.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina will receive a grant to digitize, translate, and assess 19th century materials in the Cherokees' own writing system that are housed at the Smithsonian Institution. Scientists at Cornell and Northern Arizona Universities will gather ultrasound and airflow data to determine just how the "click" sounds of South Africa's N/u language are produced. N/u has just 13 remaining fluent speakers. A DEL fellowship will support Kristine Stenzel of the University of Colorado in fieldwork to document and analyze Piratapuyo, a language of the Amazon. Piratapuyo uses an extremely rare word order: Object-Verb-Subject.

"Endangered languages are an irreplaceable source of linguistic and cognitive information," said NSF Director Arden L. Bement. "Modern cyberinfrastructure tools enable us to investigate these phenomena more exactly and more comprehensively."

A DEL grant to the University of Texas, Austin will support a global network's conference to consider common methodological, technical, and ethical issues in preserving a useful record of the world's endangered languages.

"DEL supports basic research of great promise to scientists and scholars, while assisting speakers who wish to preserve their languages," Cole and Bement agreed.

A complete list of this year's awards follows.

Fellowships (of $40,000 each, awarded by NEH, with fellow's affiliation and project title):

  • Luis Barragan, University of Arizona, Tucson, "Documenting Mountain Pima Traditional Narratives";
  • Phillip Cash Cash, University of Arizona, Tucson, "A Filmic Language Documentation of Nez Perce and Sahaptin";
  • Erin Debenport, University of Chicago, "Documenting Southern Tiwa at Sandia Pueblo, New Mexico";
  • Arienne Dwyer, University of Kansas, Lawrence, "Language Contact and Variation: A Discourse-based Grammar of Monguor";
  • Andrei Filtchenko, Rice University, Houston, Texas, "Documentation of the Endangered Eastern Khanty Dialects";
  • Nicholas Hopkins, Florida State University, Tallahassee, "Digitizing and Archiving of Mesoamerican Language Data";
  • Miki Makihara, Queens College, City University of New York, "Easter Island Linguistic Heritage Project: Creating a Digital Archive for Rapa Nui Oral and Video Histories";
  • Anthony Mattina, University of Montana, Missoula, "Colville-Okanagan Dictionary, Reference Grammar, Texts";
  • Justin McBride, Kaw Nation, Kaw City, Okla., "Kaw Language Documentation Project";
  • Robert L. Rankin, University of Kansas, Lawrence, "Kaw Language Documentation Project";
  • Laura Robinson, University of Hawai'i, Manoa, "Linguistic Documentation of Eastern Cagayan Agta";
  • Paula Rogers, University of Oregon, Eugene, "The Documentation of Saaroa"; and
  • Kristine Stenzel, University of Colorado, Boulder, "Documentation of Piratapuyo (Eastern Tukanoan)."

Institutional Grants (with project director, project title, and preliminary grant amount provided by NSF, unless otherwise indicated):

  • Arizona State University, Tempe, Thomas Hudak, "Documentation and Archival-Digitization of Tai Linguistic Data," $69,456;
  • California State University, San Marcos, Jule Garcia, "Multimedia Database of Ixil Mayan Narratives," $160,000;
  • Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Cherokee, N.C., Barbara Duncan, "Smithsonian Cherokee Language Materials and Language Revitalization," $168,274 (NEH);
  • Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., Amanda Miller-Ockhuizen, "Collaborative Research: Descriptive and Theoretical Studies of N|u," $14,452;
  • Chief Dull Knife College, Lame Deer, Mont., Richard Littlebear, "Northern Cheyenne Endangered Language Project," $100,000;
  • Gettysburg College, Jonathan Amith, "Guerrero Nahuatl Language Documentation and Lexicon Enrichment Project," $299,917;
  • Ironbound Films, Inc., Sunnyside, N.Y., Daniel Miller, "Vanishing Voices," $502,730;
  • Linguistic Society of America, Washington, D.C., Margaret Reynolds, "Archiving Endangered Languages: Communication among Competing Approaches and Education in Best Practices," $25,000;
  • Linguistic Society of America, Washington, D.C., Gregory Ward, "Challenge Grant: Ensuring the Teaching of Research Skills for the Documentation and Revitalization of Endangered Languages (Kenneth Hale Memorial Chair)," $40,000 (NEH and NSF);
  • Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Bonny Sands, "Collaborative Research: Descriptive and Theoretical Studies of N|u," $6,970;
  • Sealaska Heritage Institute, Juneau, Alaska, Keri Edwards, "Continuing Tlingit Language Documentation," $266,224;
  • Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Charles Hofling, "Comparative and Historical Yukatekan Maya," $101,971;
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks, Gary Holton, "Developing a Northern Indigenous Languages Archive: Yup'ik Pilot Project," $39,186;
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kathy Sikorski, "Pedagogical Grammar of Gwich'in," $103,947;
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks, Siri Tuttle, "Lower Tanana Dictionary and Literacy," $109,772;
  • University of Arizona, Tucson, Heidi Harley, "The Morphosyntax of Verbs in Arizona Yaqui," $159,992;
  • University of Arizona, Tucson, Susan Penfield, "Mohave and Chemehuevi Language Documentation Project," $200,000;
  • University of Arizona, Tucson, Natasha Warner, "Database of Mutsun, an Extinct California American Indian Language," $168,261 (NEH);
  • University of California Berkeley, Larry Hyman, "Documentation and Description of the Badiaranke Language," $17,767;
  • University of Chicago, John Goldsmith, "Digital Preservation of Meso-American Linguistic Archives," $141,516 (NEH);
  • University of Colorado, Boulder, Zygmunt Frajzyngier, "Grammars of Mandara and Giziga," $239,999;
  • University of Delaware, Newark, Peter Cole, "Traditional Jambi Malay," $185,585;
  • University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, Melissa Axelrod, "Nambe Tewa Language Revitalization Project: Production of an Electronic Archive," $203,840;
  • University of Texas at Austin, Joel Sherzer, "DELAMAN 3: The Third Annual Meeting of the Digital Endangered Languages and Musics Archive Network," $15,950;
  • University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Lyle Campbell, "Xinkan, Pipil and Mocho': Bringing Three Endangered Language Documentation Projects to Completion," $374,932; and
  • University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Lise Dobrin, "Arapesh Grammar and Digital Language Archive," $225,000 (NEH).

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