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More Than Words

As Native American languages are spoken less and less every year, UTA researchers are working on campus and in Native American communities to preserve them.

By Amber scott

Photograph by Stephen Alvarez









The loss has been a long time coming. It goes back more than 180 years, when Native American communities in the United States were relocated, in many cases forcibly. With one edict from the United States government, tribes in the southeastern United States had lost their homes, any sense of stability, and even the cultural norms tied to their homelands. This had a major impact on the “Five Tribes”: Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole—all speakers of Muskogean languages—and the Cherokee, who speak an Iroquoian language.

Now, these languages are teetering near the edge of extinction.

“Elders may be the only ones who still speak the language,” says Kimberly Johnson, a master’s student in linguistics. “Some communities, though, are actively working to teach the language to the younger generations.”

Johnson and other graduate students in linguistics Professor Colleen Fitzgerald’s Native American Languages Lab at UTA are working to support community efforts. Preserving endangered languages like these is essential, says Johnson, because culture and language are so closely linked. Without language, cultural mainstays fall in short order. And to lose these cultures would be to lose an essential part of American history.

Heritage languages—or mother languages—are dying out worldwide. Though there are an estimated 7,000 languages in the world, roughly three-quarters of the population speaks about 75 of those languages. The remaining languages have much smaller numbers of fluent speakers. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, about 3,000 are endangered, and 576 critically so. Muskogean languages range from vulnerable to severely endangered.

“Without speakers, the only access to these languages is if there are recordings or manuscripts in existence,” Dr. Fitzgerald says. “We will lose a vast amount of linguistic diversity if we don’t take action now.”


Taking action is a cornerstone of UTA’s approach to the preservation of endangered languages. Documentation projects are key. In 2015, Fitzgerald was named director of the National Science Foundation’s Documenting Endangered Languages program. The program is a joint funding initiative with the National Endowment for the Humanities, and it’s one of the few major initiatives worldwide that funds endangered language research. In her role, Fitzgerald does outreach to prospective applicants, handles inquiries, and runs the review process.

“What is particularly exciting about this position is how it gives you the big picture on where the transformative ideas are coming from in endangered language research,” she says. “It’s also broadened my knowledge of the international aspects of this work.”

Flashcards representing Chickasaw words and their English equivalents. Tools like these can help new speakers begin to pick up the language.

It’s the sort of knowledge she brings back to campus, where students like Samantha Cornelius, a doctoral student in linguistics, are working with communities whose languages are in peril. Cornelius’ research focuses on the Cherokee language—how its sound system works and how complicated word formations function in the language’s relatively understudied syntax. During her yearly trips to the Cherokee community in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, she records as she conducts her research.

“It’s easy to forget just how much is out there in our language and how easily we can access it in all forms of media,” she says. “There is just not that ubiquity of language for these indigenous communities, so any addition of material is vital to the preservation of language.”

This work was sparked when Fitzgerald taught a linguistic field methods course focusing on Cherokee, giving Cornelius and other students the opportunity to work with speakers in Oklahoma. Apart from the direct benefits to the community, the studying and documentation of endangered languages can help linguists gain a better understanding of language and its function as a whole.

“Studying endangered languages offers us a chance to explore diversity and gain another perspective on how language is stored and organized in the brain,” Cornelius continues. “This is where documentation comes in—by having more information, we are better able to make a complete picture not only of individual languages, but also language as a human property.”


It’s also imperative to ensure that UTA’s linguists are trained in best practices and are up-to-date with language documentation standards. UTA is not just a follower of these standards; it is a steward.

In 2014, UTA hosted the third biannual Collaborative Language Research Institute (CoLang), which offers an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students, practicing linguists, and indigenous community members to develop and refine skills and approaches to language documentation and revitalization. Featuring two weeks of intensive workshops and a four-week field methods course, CoLang provides students exposure to a diverse range of participants and hands-on learning opportunities.

UTA’s CoLang, which was directed by Fitzgerald and funded in part by a National Science Foundation grant, brought participants and instructors from countries all over the world. The major theme was Native American languages, and Fitzgerald was proud that part of the language offerings included Alabama, a language only spoken in Texas.

Linguistics Professor Colleen Fitzgerald is a renowned expert in endangered language research.

“Many departments do not offer field methods courses or do not have faculty with expertise in documentation,” Fitzgerald says. “CoLang has become one of the premier international venues for training in language documentation and revitalization.”

In 2016, UTA sent students and faculty to the next CoLang, held at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Languages of Alaska and language archiving were the overarching themes.

“I went to CoLang for the opportunity to work and learn side-by-side with not only fellow linguists from around the world, but also with community members who are actively fighting to preserve their culture and heritage,” says Mac Taylor, a doctoral student in linguistics. “CoLang provided me opportunities that I never would have had without it, and allowed me to meet and partner with people from endangered language communities from as far away as New Zealand and Singapore.”

Ray Elliott, an associate professor in the Department of Modern Languages who also attended the 2016 CoLang, dedicates his research to the documentation and conservation of Chicahuaxtla Triqui, an Otomanguean tonal language spoken by about 6,000 people in the highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico. He has spent two semesters living in the San Andrés Chicahuaxtla village and teaching English to elementary school children while studying and documenting their language. Undergraduate and graduate students have also joined in Dr. Elliott’s fieldwork, producing high-definition video and audio recordings. The team’s efforts resulted in three publications in top-tier journals in linguistics and language documentation.

“It’s very important to train undergraduate and graduate students alike to carry out this type of research to ensure that language documentation and conservation efforts will continue in the future,” he says. “These are not the types of learning experiences one can provide students by sitting in a classroom.”


Training on best practices is particularly essential when linguists have the opportunity to conduct fieldwork and public outreach. It’s something UTA graduate students do often. Through the Native American Languages Lab (NALL), undergraduate and graduate students have had the opportunity to work with Native American communities as they seek to serve each community’s language needs.

“Without speakers, the only access to these languages is if there are recordings or manuscripts in existence,” Dr. Fitzgerald says. “We will lose a vast amount of linguistic diversity if we don’t take action now.”

Fitzgerald and her research partner, Joshua Hinson, are working on the Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program, which offers “narrative boot camp” workshops where they, along with participating students, do onsite recordings of stories told by Chickasaw elders. Students from UTA and elsewhere transcribe and translate those stories during the workshops.

“When a language has lots of speakers, the speakers do not always think consciously about all the genres they have in speech,” Fitzgerald says. This includes prayers, greetings, funny stories, childhood recollections, and more—all areas that may not be covered in endangered language communities. “Until very recently, we lacked recordings in Chickasaw of these different ways of communicating.”

Johnson, who has helped organize some of these workshops, says the experience she has gained through NALL has been invaluable.

“As a student, I find the Muskogean languages fascinating. Understudied languages like these have an awful lot to contribute to the field of linguistics,” she says. “I hope to continue doing theoretical and documentary work with the Muskogean communities and support language revitalization as well.”

NALL outreach doesn’t just benefit distant communities; it also benefits students on campus. In partnership with the Native American Student Association, NALL launched an indigenous language video contest to promote Mother Language Day and co-hosted a Native Language Film Festival. The film festival was held during UTA’s 20th annual Powwow, a day celebrating Native American culture. Another local workshop was hosted by the Urban Inter-Tribal Center in Dallas.

An additional UTA initiative, Endangered Languages Week, features a series of events that highlight the plight of languages in danger of extinction. Events include an exploration of verbal arts, writing systems, and the grammatical complexity of languages from Oklahoma to the Pacific.

With current statistics estimating that a language dies every 14 days, this sort of dedicated attention—from documentation to continuing education to outreach—is vital to the preservation of language. Beyond that, Fitzgerald notes that what endangered languages truly needs are people who consider themselves to be language warriors—those who have dedicated their lives to revitalizing their tribal languages. She hopes that the work she and others do with Native communities will help them assume the mantle of language conservation.

“The biggest intellectual treasure we have as human beings is the capacity for language,” said Fitzgerald in The Huffington Post. “Human beings have nothing that is simultaneously so intellectually intricate and complex as language, and at the same time, so emotional and intimate. For these young people and these determined elders, the blessing of their heritage language is not to be denied.”