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UT Arlington linguist wins NSF grant to breathe new life into endangered Native American languages

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

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Media Contact: Bridget Lewis, Office:817-272-3317, Cell:214-577-9094, blewis@uta.edu

ARLINGTON - A University of Texas at Arlington linguist is working to save disappearing languages in Native American communities in Oklahoma – a state with the highest Native language diversity in the United States, but very little documentation.

Colleen Fitzgerald

Colleen Fitzgerald

Colleen Fitzgerald, associate professor and chairperson of UT Arlington’s Department of Linguistics and TESOL, has won a $48,000 National Science Foundation grant along with Mary Linn, an anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma and curator of Native American language at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

The grant will fund research associated with the Oklahoma Breath of Life workshop planned for next May in Norman, Okla. The program will reunite linguists with Native Americans who attended a similar workshop there last year.

“That project was very successful. Three communities participated: Osage, Otoe, and Natchez,” Fitzgerald said. The 2012 workshop will reinforce the original linguistic mentor-mentee partnerships with those three communities and provide for seven more groups whose languages have no fluent speakers.

The project is modeled after the Breath of Life program at the University of California, Berkley, which opened its archives on Native Americans and made a tremendous amount of information accessible to linguists. Through phonetics training, research and second source analysis, participants were able to access, understand, and do research on materials on their languages, and to use them for language revitalization.

“Even though it was their heritage, they couldn’t access their ancestors’ language,” Fitzgerald said, adding: “These are groups that went through genocide in our country. People were herded to reservations and sent to boarding schools and beaten for speaking their languages.”

After such painful experiences, many Native Americans chose not to teach their language to their children to prevent future persecution.

That course of action had detrimental affects on entire tribes, Fitzgerald said. Language plays a critical role in grounding children in their culture and fostering positive self-esteem. Such affirmation also may help fight drug and alcohol abuse and other concerns such as depression and suicide, Linn said.

Oklahoma has 39 languages that were at one time spoken by tribes throughout Oklahoma, according to the National Geographic’s Enduring Voices: Saving Disappearing Languages Project. Seventeen of those languages are no longer spoken by a native speaker, and only 6 to 7 have a few very elderly speakers, which means they will no longer have speakers in the next few years.

Mary Linn

Mary Linn

Fitzgerald and Linn said their work may lead to documented new speakers and the production of grammar guides and dictionaries.

Native American language reclamation projects such as this new study provide an important part of the historical documentation of the United States for all its citizens, the researchers said.

To hear words spoken in the Osage language, visit www.osagetribe.com/language/.

Fitzgerald’s linguistic studies are representative of the research under way at The University of Texas at Arlington, a comprehensive research and teaching institution of nearly 34,000 students in the heart of North Texas. Visit www.uta.edu to learn more.

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The University of Texas at Arlington is an Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action employer.

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