Fairbanks, Alaska--The preservation of an important record of the Atuuan dialect of the Aleut language rests on the shoulders of an 80-year-old man and his ability to recognize the language of his childhood on a dozen 100-year-old phonograph cylinders.
Southern Tsimshian is nearly as close to the edge. A 94-year-old woman is the only known living speaker of the language. Eyak is another example. The last remaining speaker, Marie Smith Jones, died Jan. 21, an event that marks the extinction of her language.
"These languages are the essence of the thinking of uniquely Alaskan people, who have the right to help to retain their language," said Michael Krauss, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "(They are) the result of millennia of experience in these environments, the wisdom of the ages, you could call it. Not only that, they represent different ways of seeing--of understanding--our common human experience."
During the next three years, Krauss will lead a team of veteran linguists in documenting these and other endangered languages in and near Alaska. The project, funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, will include researchers from Canada, Japan and Russia, as well as the United States. The researchers will document some of Alaska's most endangered indigenous and historical languages.
"If it's ever going to be done, it has got to be done now," said Krauss, noting that some of the languages are on the brink of extinction. "Making a record, as much as we can, of a language while it is still there is vital to the future of the language and the people."
The project will rely heavily on researchers' collaboration with language speakers in communities across the state and will culminate in a variety of finished works, including several new and expanded dictionaries and grammars.
Collaborators on the project include Willem de Reuse, Andrej Kibrik, Jeff Leer, Edna Ahgeak MacLean, Osahito Miyaoka, Steven Jacobson, Evgenii Golovko, Moses Dirks and John Ritter. All are veteran researchers, Krauss said. "This work is also meant to be the culmination of professional lifetimes of work by experts in these languages."
The project will focus on 11 languages: Han Athabascan, Upper Kuskokwim Athabascan, Eyak, Tlingit, Southern Tsimshian, North Slope Inupiaq, Central Alaskan Yupik, Central Siberian Yupik, Alutiiq, Atuuan Aleut and Kodiak Russian Creole.
Krauss said the grant is an example of the NSF's ongoing support of one of the most fundamental aspects of linguistics: language documentation. Over time, he said, the field has sometimes become more focused on theory and less on the diversity of human language.
"The NSF never lost track of the importance of documenting these devalued languages, which were disappearing before our very eyes," Krauss said. "They always maintained a high priority for making a record of our endangered American languages."
The project will be housed within UAF's College of Liberal Arts as part of the Alaska Native Language Archive. The project is part of the National Science Foundation's and UAF's contribution to International Polar Year research efforts. IPY is a two-year international event, which began in March 2007, that is focusing research efforts and public attention on the Earth's polar regions.
CONTACT: Michael Krauss, professor emeritus, at 907-479-6346 or 907-347-6713 or via e-mail at email@example.com. Marmian Grimes, UAF public information officer, at 907-474-7902 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.