Public Release: 

Workshop designed to give 'sleeping' Indian languages a breath of life

University of Washington

Thirty-six participants from 13 Pacific Northwest Indian tribes will gather at the University of Washington next week for a workshop designed to open the linguistic riches of the UW campus and assist in tribal efforts to revitalize indigenous languages.

Members of the Nooksack, Chehalis, Cowlitz, Lummi, Tulalip, Colville, Yakama, Samish, Skokomish, Muckleshoot, Squaxin Island, Lower Rogue and Unangax tribes and nations will participate in the weeklong Breath of Life workshop Sept. 8-12. They will work with a dozen linguists, primarily UW linguistics Ph.Ds. and graduate students, and library archivists, to learn basics of linguistics and explore material in their languages that is stored at the UW.

"All of the participants are working to revitalize imperiled languages, and some of these languages have no fluent speakers today," said Alice Taff, a research associate in the UW's linguistics department who is coordinating the workshop.

"We call these 'sleeping' languages when there are no speakers. But you can wake up a language. Hebrew, in the context of daily conversation, was sleeping and is now quite awake."

During the workshop, participants will go to class in the mornings to learn linguistic skills that will aid them in their work in the archives. In the afternoons, archivists will help them explore and sort through the material in their language. To focus their archives search, each participant will work on a project related to revitalizing his or her language.

The UW archives and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture contain a number of collections with material devoted to the languages of native peoples of Washington and the Pacific Northwest. The largest is the Melville Jacobs Collection. Jacobs was chairman of the UW's anthropology department for nearly 30 years, and from 1926 to 1939 did extensive field research documenting Indian language and music in Washington. The Jacobs collection includes numerous field recordings, many originally made on wax cylinders, as well as his notebooks and cards and material collected by some of his students. The collection fills about 150 boxes.

The Northwest Linguistics Collection contains miscellaneous material that includes more than 800 audiotapes and countless microfilm copies of linguistics field notes. The Ethnomusicology Collection, housed in the School of Music, is one of the largest in the country and contains material related to the songs of Washington and Pacific Northwest Indians. The Metcalf Collection, stored in the Burke Museum contains, 76 one-hour tapes, primarily of songs and music collected around Puget Sound in the 1950s.

"Many academics built their careers on the backs of linguistic data that Indian people gave them, so it behooves the UW to turn around and open the archives to their descendents who are working to revitalize their language," said Taff.

She hopes the workshop will continue in future years. But even if it doesn't, she thinks the weeklong program will show participants how to use the archives, know the university and feel comfortable enough to come back at their convenience and continue their work.

"What we are going to be doing and teaching is secondary, and going through this material will be absolute detective work to help sleeping languages awaken," she said.

The UW workshop is modeled and named after a similar program that has been held every other year since 1996 at the University of California, Berkeley, to revitalize Indian languages in California.


For more information, contact Taff at or the UW department of linguistics after Sept. 7 at 206-543-2046.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.