Boise State University

Mark Rudin: Idaho linguists aid communication, help preserve languages

The ability to communicate is essential to a happy, safe and productive life. From sharing important safety tips (don’t touch that, look both ways, wear sunscreen) to building the foundation for relationships, communicating our thoughts, needs and feelings is key to our very survival.

Because our culture affects how we use specific words and phrases, language also reflects our values and traditions. Thus linguistics, the scientific study of language and its structure, is a vital component of inquiry and an understanding of our role as world citizens.

Sadly, about three languages disappear from the historical record each year, erasing generations of cultural knowledge. Luckily, a group of dedicated linguists right here in Idaho is working to change that.

But preserving the culture of refugees and indigenous populations can be tedious. Scientists work one-on-one with native speakers to transcribe their language, incorporating information on its sounds, words and sentences in an attempt to capture as many elements of the language as possible.

One example of how this research benefits society is seen in the work of Boise State linguists Michal Temkin Martinez and Jon Dayley. Following extensive documentation, they are in the process of finishing up the first-ever Somali Chizigula-English dictionary for use by native speakers and linguists. The project will help ensure the survival of the language as a younger generation of Somali refugees assimilates into the American culture.

Temkin Martinez also is working with the Languages of Boise Project, housed in the Mary Ellen Ryder Linguistics Lab on the Boise State campus, to create an online resource containing information about all the languages spoken in Boise’s growing refugee community. Each language entry will include information about the people who speak it, their homeland, and appropriate language- and culture-related communicative practices.

More importantly, it will provide about 100 of the most useful words and phrases for service providers. Imagine having a patient walk into your clinic in obvious pain and not being able to ask them whether they are OK or where it hurts, or even welcome them to the office until an interpreter arrives. This resource also will help service providers prepare for meetings with new clients.

University students are assisting with the project and will add to the online volume each year, competing for inclusion of their research on a variety of languages.

As the refugee community grows across the country, other researchers are working to preserve and target lesser-known tongues: Heidi Harley at the University of Arizona (working with Boise State alumna and Ph.D. student Elly Zimmer) and Mary Paster at Pomona College are doing exciting work on Maay Maay, while Brent Henderson at the University of Florida is documenting the endangered Chimiini language. Both of these languages are spoken in Somalia.

But you don’t have to look far to find an endangered language closer to home. Many of our indigenous languages are facing extinction as younger generations lose their connection to the heritage language and the number of older speakers begins to dwindle.

Idaho State linguists Christopher Loether and Drucilla Gould, and Boise State’s Tim Thornes and Dayley, are working to help preserve the Northern Paiute, Bannock and Shoshoni languages by recording oral traditions and helping develop teaching materials aimed at tribal youth. Fort Hall’s Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy, for example, is Idaho’s first language immersion charter school and is focused on the Shoshoni-Bannock languages.

Thornes, who has studied the Northern Paiute and Bannock languages for more than two decades, has been involved in documenting Northern Paiute oral histories with a handful of remaining elder speakers in Burns, Ore., and in describing its complex grammar.

Others outside the state are also working to preserve Idaho’s native languages, including Marianna DiPaolo, a University of Utah researcher documenting Shoshoni language varieties in Idaho’s Duck Valley and in Utah. Ivy Doak and Tim Montler from the University of North Texas are focused on the Coeur d’Alene language heard in North Idaho.

These are just a few examples of the work that is ongoing across the state. Multiply that by the many languages spoken around the world and the instability of many nations and cultures, and you begin to get a sense of the urgency of the work. While change is good, we must make sure we don’t substitute globalization for the richness of diversity in language.

Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. His column looks at the state of scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.