Linguistics Department research helps preserve endangered languages

Professor John Boyles works with students and a language consultant in a field methods class.

~ Pictured above: Professor John Boyle works with students in his field methods class dissecting the Ixpantepec Nieves Mixtec language from the Mixteca region of southwestern Mexico with Constantina (Rosa) Leon, a consultant of the language.

~ By Lisa Maria Boyles, communications specialist for the College of Arts and Humanities

At U.C. Santa Barbara’s Workshop on American Indigenous Languages (WAIL) conference in May, Fresno State Linguistics Department faculty and students (current and former) dominated the program, delivering 10 of the 36 talks.

“We took over that conference. It was awesome,” said Department Chair Brian Agbayani.

Titles of the talks from Fresno State presenters included:

  • Geminates in Hidatsa — Professors John Boyle and Chris Golston with Wolfgang Kehrein of the University of Groningen
  • Hidatsa and Sonority: The Gradient Effect of the Syllable Contact Law and Emergent Categoricity — Brian Moran, a graduate student
  • Indefiniteness in Hidatsa — Laura Hendricksen, a graduate student
  • Phonetic Evidence for Categorical Stress Assignment in Hidatsa — Zachary Metzler, a graduate student
  • Configurationality in Chukchansi — Professors Brian Agbayani and John Boyle
  • Minimal Affix Length in Crow — John Simonian, a graduate student
  • Moraic Licensing in Crow — Daphne Russell, an undergraduate student
  • Null Morphemes in Crow — Professor Chris Golston
  • Non-Configurationality of Guerrero Nahuatl — Zahra Alzebaidi, a graduate student
  • A Reanalysis of Templatic Morphology in Yokuts Langauges — Peter Guekguezian, of the University of Southern California (Guekguezian earned his master’s degree from the Fresno State Linguistics Department and was a winner on Jeopardy over the summer)

Presenting research at the annual WAIL conference is just one component of crucial research being done by Linguistics Department faculty and students to help preserve endangered native languages, both here and in other parts of the United States.

Faculty members Drs. Chris Golston, Niken Adisasmito-Smith and Brian Agbayani have been working since 2009 to revitalize the Chukchansi language, devising a writing system, developing a Chukchansi dictionary and grammar and preserving traditional stories and myths.

Since Dr. John Boyle joined the Linguistics faculty at Fresno State in 2014, the department’s endangered language efforts have expanded far beyond the local research.

“There are three languages that are critically endangered,” said Professor Chris Golston. “Crow has less than 1,500 native speakers, Hidatsa has less than 30, I think, and then Chukchansi is less than five. And there are very few or no children speaking these languages. The only way these languages are going to revive is if they’re taught to adults and children. That’s what John Boyle specializes in. We’re working on two things: documentation — that’s figuring out how the language is put together — and revitalization, which is building the teaching materials, dictionaries, teaching materials, posters.”

Over the summer, two teams of professors and students did field work with teachers of Crow and Hidatsa, two Siouan languages spoken on the great northern plains. This was the third year that students, both undergraduate and graduate, joined on the trips.

One team traveled to Montana in June to help out at the Crow Summer Institute. Another team went to the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Summer Institute in New Town, North Dakota, in July.

Linguists at Fresno State are interested in how such words are made in the grammars of these languages, Golston said, and in how the sound-systems of the languages interact with their word- and sentence-systems.

Students get involved in ground-breaking linguistic research opportunities here at Fresno State too.

While she was a student in the linguistics department, Jessica Harmon, who earned a minor in the Classical Studies, discovered a similarity between Latin and the Chukchansi language, Golston said. A student in the Smittcamp Family Honors College, Harmon wrote her honors thesis on “Postpositive Conjunctions in Chukchansi Yokuts.” Harmon is now working on her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California.

“It’s a great thing for our students,” Golston said. “When they do research on these languages, they’re not recreating what someone else already found. They’re discovering new facts about these languages. It’s literally cutting-edge research.”

“The faculty in the Linguistics Department have published in flagship linguistics journals and collaborate with colleagues around the world,” said Associate Dean Honora Chapman. “They conduct research with each other and with their students especially in the area of preserving Native American languages, and they share their research in regularly scheduled colloquia, often inviting nationally and internationally recognized scholars to deliver talks as well. Overall, the linguistics faculty have produced some of the highest quality research in the humanities on our campus.”

Golston pointed out an opportunity available to Fresno State linguistics students that isn’t even available at all California university programs, even at some of the University of California programs.

Boyle teaches a field methods class in which students dive deep into dissecting a language. This semester, undergraduate students are working with Constantina (Rosa) Leon, a consultant of the Ixpantepec Nieves Mixtec language from the Mixteca region of southwestern Mexico.

“Working with a language over several semesters allows me to get a handle on it and then help guide students into promising areas of the grammar,” Boyle said “During the semester we begin work on a basic word list and that allows students to get familiar with the language. After the first month, we have figured out the basic sound system of the language. We then move on to word formation and try to elicit morphology. Finally, we begin to elicit sentences looking at different types of syntactic constructions (clauses and sentences). During the semester students choose a subject and we focus on those topics during the last month. They then write a paper on this topic for the term paper. Hopefully, they will find something interesting and they can turn that into a conference paper or even a thesis.”

“We are increasingly becoming a center for studying indigenous languages on the West Coast,” Golston said.

Agbayani and Golston noted several reasons how languages become endangered:

  • Native speakers die, either from disease or from being killed (extermination of native peoples by those who came to colonize the continent).
  • In the past, government policies killed languages on purpose — separating children from their homes and punishing them for speaking their native language.
  • People choose not to speak their native language to their children.

“They don’t see a value to it,” Agbayani said, “or there’s a cultural stigma.”

Golston and Agbayani discussed why this work is so important.

“There is linguistic diversity. There are about 7,000 languages in the world — that’s an important part of cultural diversity,” Golston said. “When they go down to 2,000, which might happen in the next century, you’ve just lost all of that diversity. Diversity is a buzzword that we can all agree on.”

“There’s a scientific tragedy of language loss that’s true,” Agbayani said. “If these languages die, we don’t know what the human range of variation is, what humans are capable of. There are two tragedies: For those people who want to preserve it, it’s a tragedy for them to see it just go away. [Hypothetically speaking,] something as simple as the knowledge my mother had is gone. That’s a very personal thing — that was her language and now nobody speaks it anymore.”

Golston put it in another perspective: “My mom spoke German. But when she died, German didn’t die with her. There is a whole country of Germans who still speak that language. But when these speakers die, there’s no Chukchansi country where the language lives on. That’s it.”



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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

3 thoughts on “Linguistics Department research helps preserve endangered languages

  1. I agree with Professor Golston! We need to be proactive in helping preserve these critically endangered languages. This especially pertains to the Chukchansi language that is severely endangered language with only 5 speakers, their cultural survival is largely tied to the linguistics professors and students involved. The documentation of these languages is vital but so is the teaching of the language to adults and children. The only way to truly save these cultures’ history and identity is through this language reawakening. It is so important that their culture’s intergeneration knowledge is passed down because such a big part of indigenous culture is their relationship to the earth and words that do not translate. These students are saving much more than an endangered language but also these cultures’ storyscapes, ceremonies, and traditions.

    Liked by 1 person

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