Dr. Elzinga shared his experiences in local indigenous language documentation with the Tribe of Many Feathers club.
On Tuesday, February 7, Dr. Dirk Elzinga gave a presentation on his fieldwork involving Numic languages to the Tribe of Many Feathers. TMF is a BYU club that focuses on Native American representation, education, and fellowship on campus and within the community. Members include students, faculty, and family of various indigenous and non-indigenous backgrounds. Dr. Elzinga was invited to one of TMF’s weekly activities to share about language documentation in the Western United States. He spent his time at TMF recounting experiences in local indigenous language documentation, presenting on interesting features of these languages, and suggesting ways linguists and non-linguists can be involved in language documentation.
Dr. Elzinga works primarily with Numic languages, a branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family, which includes Comanche, Shoshone, Chemehuevi, Ute, and Paiute. These languages are “head-final” and they include voiceless vowels, which sound whispered when spoken. Dr. Elzinga shared what a typical linguistics fieldwork session is like. A session usually consists of meeting with a native speaker to ask them to tell stories, give oral histories, or say certain words or sounds all while recording audio. Later, he might work with a consultant or native speaker to listen to, transcribe, and translate the audio recording in 1-5 second-long segments at a time. Depending on the content or length of the audio, this process can take a very long time.
During his fieldwork, Dr. Elzinga has worked with the last speaker of Chemehuevi to produce an orthography (spelling system) and the beginnings of an e-dictionary. He has also worked with Ute elders along with The Language Conservancy, a non-profit organization that works to protect and revitalize indigenous languages, to produce an online Ute dictionary, which is now online and fully functional. (You can check it out at: dictionary.utelanguage.org.) Currently, Dr. Elzinga is helping to launch a language learning app for heritage speakers to learn Ute Mountain Ute.
Although Dr. Elzinga is not indigenous himself, he does this collaborative fieldwork because he gets along well with indigenous communities and loves to get language documentation and other research materials back into the hands of these communities, especially since the use of many Numic languages is on the decline. He said he “has the linguistic skills and the desire to put them to good use.” To him, the most rewarding part of his research is making friends while working with different tribes and getting to see the results of their work together.
During his presentation, Dr. Elzinga gave some suggestions for how to get involved in language documentation. Whether you’re a linguist or not, he urged TMF and others to:
- Take a linguistics course (LING 110 and LING 201 are good starting points)
- Work or volunteer at your tribe’s language program
- Intern for an organization like The Language Conservancy
- Take care of your elders and ask them questions (they are the key to this work!)
Dr. Elzinga is looking forward to next winter when he gets to collect the first recordings of traditional stories in Ute Mountain Ute. If you’re interested in phonology, language documentation, or local indigenous languages, reach out to Dr. Elzinga to get involved with his work! And if you’re interested in Native American tribal cultures, communities, or education, join the Tribe of Many Feathers!