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Published Jan 1, 2007 8:00 AM


12. Native Tongues

What: Saving and reviving tribal languages

Who: California tribes, Leanne Hinton, Pam Munro, and other linguists

Impact: Of 84 indigenous languages once spoken in California, 35 have no speakers left and the remaining languages are spoken by only a handful of elders, giving the state the dubious distinction of being one of the world's great native language cemeteries. Fortunately, in the early 20th century, linguists like John Peabody Harrison single-mindedly recorded the surviving languages in pen-and-ink and wax cylinder. They became an invaluable resource for tribal members and for a new generation of linguists, like Berkeley's Hinton and UCLA's Munro. Wax cylinders and field notes have been translated into digital files available on the Internet. Dozens of tribal members drive or fly to Hinton's biannual Breath of Life conference to learn new preservation techniques. Hinton also invented a "Master/Apprentice" program in which a native-speaking elder teaches a young person indigenous words, phrases and concepts. Sure, saving these languages involves a thousand acts of faith. But what could be better than learning to say, "Pass the salmon," in Hupa?

Eureka moment: There have been dozens, as a new generation first reads the letters or listens to the recorded songs of their great-aunts or grandfathers in their native tongues.

— Kerry Tremain

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