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Reprinted from: La Crosse Tribune

June 1, 2008

Languages offer window into human mind

By Jason Stein
Lee Newspapers

When an Oneida speaks, there are whispers.

The softly spoken sounds often come in the final syllables of Oneida words, usually when the words fall at the end of sentences. This rare, fragile feature hints at the richness and complexity of Wisconsin's threatened native languages.

"It's very unconscious. I've met people who didn't realize they were doing it, and it's a natural part of the way they speak," said University of Wisconsin-Green Bay linguist Cliff Abbott, who's spent a career studying Oneida. "I find it a little bit mysterious, to be perfectly honest."

Tribes and linguists alike are running out of chances to preserve this intriguing diversity. By this century's end, more than half of the world's roughly 6,000 languages will be lost, linguists said. An even greater majority of the 155 native languages left in the U.S. are expected to disappear.

For the tribal members who still speak them, Wisconsin's American Indian languages serve as a window through which they frame their world. For linguists like Abbott, those windows offer a glimpse into the human mind itself.

Here are just a few examples:

When an Ojibwe speaker tells a story about, say, a man hunting a bear, he can use a kind of verbal spotlight, shifting the focus from the hunter to the quarry and back again, regardless of which one is doing the action, said Larry Martin, a linguist at UW-Eau Claire. It can be a subtle, even subconscious cue to the listener to pay more attention to the still bear than the stalking hunter. There's nothing quite like it in English.

Like other native languages in the state, Menominee divides nouns into the living and the non-living. Among the living nouns are some surprising objects, such as stones, kettles and balls.

In Ho-Chunk, your paternal uncle is considered a father (you can have more than one) and his sons are your brothers, not your cousins.

Oneida has no sounds made with the lips such as p, b and m. Linguists once mistakenly thought every human language had these basic sounds.

The state's native languages are so different from European languages that they can be exceedingly difficult for an English speaker to learn as an adult.

For instance, they can express an entire sentence with just a single verb loaded down with several prefixes or suffixes selected from as many as thousands of possibilities.

In Oneida, the single word "ya tusahyatekhwahlakhwa tslatok^hti tslata.sé" means "the two of them went around to the other side of the altar again," Abbott said. To build this 46-character word, an Oneida speaker must add nine prefixes to the simple root verb "-tase-", which means "to go around" all without forgetting that the final sounds might need to be whispered.

These complex words are so daunting to outsiders that when Abbott first learned the grammar of Oneida as a graduate student at Yale University, he couldn't believe anyone actually spoke it.

"It was kind of a shock when I finally got out here and realized that people spoke it very effortlessly," Abbott said. "It just looked wildly complicated to me. I didn't understand how it could all fit in somebody's mind."

With the help of a federal grant, Abbott today is working with the Oneida tribe's language program and a 97-year-old tribal elder to record pronunciations of Oneida words. He's part of a small number of University of Wisconsin System linguists working to preserve endangered languages through dictionaries, digital recordings and other tools.

Other groups leveraging technology to preserve languages include the Forest County Potawatomi tribe, which is using handheld, voice-activated translating devices first developed by the U.S. military, said Billy Daniels Jr., director of the tribe's Language and Culture Program, and his wife, Alyce. The devices can help language learners quickly find and practice everyday phrases, they said.

But linguists say much more is needed. They worry that, with the loss of many of the world's languages, we're losing a chance to better understand this most uniquely human of behaviors speech. In many cases worldwide, not just individual languages but entire families of related languages are dying, linguist Gregory Anderson said.

"It's not just the number of languages that are disappearing," said Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute in Salem, Ore. "Virtually all linguistic diversity is disappearing. That's what's terrifying."

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