The New York Times reports a few days ago on that Long Island’s Indian tribes are researching and seeking to revive their languages, which haven’t been spoken for nearly 200 years.
Stony Brook University and two Indian nations have initiated a project to revive their extinct tongues, using old documents like a vocabulary list that Thomas Jefferson wrote during a visit in 1791.
Their goal is to resuscitate their languages and to enlisting tribal citizens from this generation and the next to speak them.
This effort is only part of a wave of language reclamation projects undertaken by American Indians in recent years.
“For many tribes language is a cultural glue that holds a community together, linking generations and preserving a heritage and values. . . .
Of the more than 300 indigenous languages spoken in the United States, only 175 remain, according to the Indigenous Language Institute. This nonprofit group estimates that without restoration efforts, no more than 20 will still be spoken in 2050.
Some reclamation efforts have shown success. Daryl Baldwin started working to revive the dormant language of the Miami Nation in the Midwest (part of the Algonquian language family), and taught his own children to speak it fluently. He now directs the Myaamia Project at Miami University in Ohio, a joint effort between academics and the Miami tribe. . . .
Robert D. Hoberman, the chairman of the linguistics department at Stony Book, is overseeing the academic side of the [Long Island Tribes’] project. He is an expert in the creation of modern Hebrew, the great success story of language revival. Essentially unspoken for 2,000 years, Hebrew survived only in religious uses until early Zionists tried to update it — an undertaking adopted on a grand scale when the State of Israel was established.
For the American Indians on Long Island the task is particularly difficult because there are few records. But Shinnecock and Unkechaug are part of a family of eastern Algonquian languages. Some have both dictionaries and native speakers, Mr. Hoberman said, which the team can mine for missing words and phrases, and for grammatical structure. . . .
Jefferson’s Unkechaug word list was collected on June 13, 1791, when he visited Brookhaven, Long Island, with James Madison, later his successor in the White House. He wrote that even then, only three old women remained who could still speak the language fluently. . . .”