Frequently in the press and language blogs we read about another language dying, or becoming extinct. But there are also some stories about languages being revived through the efforts of dedicated researchers.
Two Indian languages of Long Island which have not been spoken for 200 years are being resuscitated by Stony Brook University and two local tribes. There are overwhelming odds against the success of the project – Shinnecock and Unkechaug are part of a family of eastern Algonquian languages where few records exist. As Robert D. Hoberman, chairman of the linguistics department at Stony Brook, explains:
The reclamation is a two-step process, the professor explained. “First we have to figure out what the language looked like,” using remembered prayers, greetings, sayings and word lists, like the one Jefferson created, he said. “Then we’ll look at languages that are much better documented, look at short word lists to see what the differences are and see what the equivalencies are, and we’ll use that to reconstruct what the Long Island languages probably were like.” (Source: New York Times)
There is some precedent for the project, with a number of language reclamation projects being undertaken by American Indians in recent years. This includes the Breath of Life project, created in California to revive dormant languages in the state and now with funding to extend it to Washington D.C.
The importance of the reclamation project is noted by the leader of the Unkechaug Nation:
Chief Harry Wallace, the elected leader of the Unkechaug Nation, said that for tribal members, knowing the language is an integral part of understanding their own culture, past and present.
“When our children study their own language and culture, they perform better academically,” he said. “They have a core foundation to rely on.”