Volume 18, No. 1 - Spring 2009
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Preserving Endangered Languages




Traditions by

Documenting Language

By Nancy Kolsti

Shobhana Chelliah holds a blank book with words projected over it

Shobhana Chelliah is one of several faculty members working to preserve endangered languages. She is creating an electronic archive of Lamkang, a language spoken in parts of India and Bangladesh.

Photo by: Jonathan Reynolds

While growing up in south India, Shobhana Chelliah knew very little about the state of Manipur, located thousands of miles away on India's northeastern border with Myanmar. As a native speaker of Tamil, one of India's official languages, she also wasn't familiar with the languages of Manipur.

But today, Chelliah — now an associate professor of linguistics and technical communication at the University of North Texas — has studied not only Manipur's major language, Meithei, but also one of its minority languages, Lamkang.

"In a place like India, with more than a billion people and hundreds of languages and dialects, minority languages and their speakers are sometimes considered insignificant," she says, pointing out that an estimated 77 million people speak Tamil, 1.5 million speak Meithei and 3,000 to 5,000 speak Lamkang.

"But documenting each language and realizing that each language has something to contribute to the nation's culture is very important."

Federal Support

Last spring, Chelliah received a National Science Foundation grant of $89,803 to create an electronic archive of texts in Lamkang, which is spoken in one region of Manipur and in parts of Bangladesh.

She's one of several faculty members in UNT's Department of Linguistics and Technical Communication who have received federal funding in recent years to document and preserve endangered languages.

In 2007, Timothy Montler, Distinguished Research Professor, received a $317,502 Documenting Endangered Languages grant through a joint program of the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a dictionary and electronic text archive of Klallam, the language spoken by the Lower Elwah Klallam American Indian tribe in northwest Washington. The work was designated an NEH "We the People" project for promoting knowledge and understanding of American history and culture.

Montler has spent more than 15 years working with the tribe's cultural office to preserve the language, which in 1990 had only eight native speakers.

Willem de Reuse, adjunct research professor, received a $40,000 Documenting Endangered Languages fellowship in 2006 to create an electronic archive of texts written in Western Apache, which is mostly spoken on two reservations in central Arizona. The archive will be completed in 2009. His work also was designated a "We the People" project by the NEH. De Reuse previously received six years of NSF funding to write a reference grammar book and compile a dictionary of the language.

Sadaf Munshi, assistant professor, received $12,000 from the NSF as a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin to conduct field work for her dissertation on a dialect of Burushaski, spoken by roughly 300 people in Srinagar, her hometown in Kashmir, India. She has applied for a Documenting Endangered Languages fellowship to focus on all Burushaski dialects.

International Collaboration

More than half of the more than 6,000 languages currently spoken in the world are unlikely to be learned by future generations.

According to the Endangered Language Fund at Yale University, more than half of the more than 6,000 languages currently spoken in the world are unlikely to be learned by future generations. Languages like Lamkang, which are spoken in regions with many other languages, are disappearing because native speakers increasingly speak the region's majority language.

Chelliah says Lamkang is being increasingly mixed with Meithei.

"In the past, native Lamkang speakers lived in isolated, agricultural villages and rarely mixed with outsiders," she says. "Now, a lot of young people leave for jobs in cities in Manipur, and the language spoken in the schools is Meithei. Native speakers of Lamkang use some Meithei words in their conversations."

Chelliah began studying Lamkang only after being introduced to Meithei in graduate school by a native speaker. She later received a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies to live in Manipur and study Meithei for her doctoral dissertation.

Shobhana Chelliah holds a blank book with words projected over it

Harimohon Thounaojam, left, plays Lamkang sound files for transcription while Rex Khullar, a Lamkang speaker and consultant, takes notes.

Photo courtesy of Shobhana Chelliah

Years later, she collaborated with Harimohon Thounaojam, a native Meithei speaker who worked with the Language Cell of the Manipur government's Directorate of Education, to publish a grammar guide to Meithei and a collection of Meithei texts. In 2005, Thounaojam chose Lamkang as the subject for his doctoral dissertation, and Chelliah agreed to work with him again.

"I thought that our research could be an illustration of possible international collaboration between UNT and students in Manipur who are interested in linguistics but need technical and methodological guidance," Chelliah says.

In April 2007, she and Thounaojam published a grammatical sketch on Lamkang. The data came from field work Thounaojam conducted in Lamkang-speaking villages in Manipur.

Culture and Tradition

In the summer of 2007, Thounaojam came to UNT after Chelliah received a grant from UNT's Charn Uswachoke International Development Fund to bring him to campus. He attended Chelliah's linguistics field methods class, teaching Meithei grammar and Manipur culture and tradition to the students.

About Lamkang

The basic word order in Lamkang is subject-object-verb.In conversation, sentences may consist of just the verb, which can include enough information for speakers to understand the proposition.For example, the word kə-ck-num-rn-dok is composed of the following units: I - eat - intense activity - excessive activity - completed activity. This results in the word meaning "I ate way too much." In addition, in Lamkang, the meaning of a word can be changed by raising or lowering the pitch of a vowel. For example, ṕǝn pronounced with a high pitch means "store," but pən pronounced with a low pitch means "back."

Now, he and Chelliah are gathering information about Lamkang culture and tradition for the computer archive. When completed in 2010, the archive will include 25 hours of written and audio files of conversations, monologues, folktales and other naturally occurring speech patterns to represent a wide variety of interactions between native speakers of Lamkang.

"I recorded several conversations between a father and his adult son, talking to each other about a festival in their village. We transcribed and translated the conversations with their help," Chelliah says. "It is in these natural interactions that the true structure of the language is revealed."

Lamkang texts that currently exist, including local laws and translations of Psalm 23 and biblical parables, also will be placed in the archive. Chelliah and Thounaojam will create a corresponding web site. Visitors to the site will click on certain links for spoken Lamkang and the transcription and translation. Through the site, linguists around the world will study Lamkang, and schools could use the materials in textbooks, Chelliah says.

She hopes her research will contribute to efforts to preserve Manipur's other minority languages. The region has more than 30 languages, many of which are spoken by only a few thousand people.

"The Lamkang speakers are grateful that someone has taken an interest in preserving their language," she says. "Indian scholars also are realizing that to really get a picture of the linguistic history of the region, they need to understand all of its languages, big and small."

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