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Ethics and Revitalization of Dormant Languages: The Mutsun Language1

Natasha Warner*
Quirina Luna†
Lynnika Butler*

*University of Arizona
†Amah Mutsun Tribal Band


Language revitalization (either increasing the use of an endangered language or bringing back a language with no speakers) brings up many ethical issues, beginning with whether it is even legitimate to attempt such revitalization. Language communities and linguists must address these issues if revitalization is to succeed in any of its goals. In this paper, we discuss the ethical issues we have encountered and the choices we have made about them during revitalization work with the Mutsun language (a dormant Costanoan language of California). We argue that language revitalization is a useful and legitimate application of linguistic knowledge.

1. INTRODUCTION. Revitalization of a language with no fluent speakers (a dormant language2) is a challenge that increasing numbers of Native American communities, as well as some communities elsewhere, are undertaking. Revitalization of a dormant language exclusively from archival materials raises many ethical issues for both community members and linguists (who may or may not be community members themselves). Some of these issues overlap with endangered language work, while others are unique to dormant language revitalization. The foremost issue is perhaps whether revitalization should be attempted at all, because of the impossibility of learning the language through natural input from a living speaker. This article discusses ethical issues we have encountered while working on revitalizing the Mutsun language. Because so many indigenous languages have lost their last fluent speakers, and yet have considerable language documentation available, these issues potentially apply to many languages.

The Mutsun language is one of the Costanoan or Ohlone languages, which are part of the Yok-Utian family (Callaghan 2001). Mutsun was spoken near San Juan Bautista, California. The last known fluent speaker of Mutsun, Ascensión Solórsano, died in 1930, and the last known fluent speaker of any Ohlone language died in 1939 (Mills 1981). However, early linguists and anthropologists and a mission priest worked with speakers of Mutsun and left a large quantity of documentation of the language. In 1996, the Mutsun people (represented by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band) began a language revitalization project. The long-term goal is to create fluent Mutsun speakers who use the language in their daily lives, within the home and the community. Currently, we have analyzed most of the existing documentation, and have created a database, a dictionary, a partial textbook, and a variety of other language teaching materials. The three authors of this paper (one community member and two noncommunity linguists) are able to hold simple conversations entirely in Mutsun. Other community members are also learning the language, but there are not yet any fluent speakers. (In other work, we provide further discussion of the project status.)

The ethical issues we have encountered fall into three categories. First we will discuss issues directly related to the language (section two). In section three we address the relationship between linguists and the community. Section four relates to outcomes of revitalization.


2.1 IMPERFECT REVITALIZATION. The ethical issue we are most often asked about is imperfect revitalization. It is impossible to revitalize a language perfectly from archival sources only, with no living speakers. Mutsun is unusually well-documented for a California language that lost its last fluent speaker so long ago: there are tens of thousands of pages of microfilmed field data on Mutsun language and culture from J. P. Harrington (1922, 1929–30), an excellent linguist. There are also several earlier sources, particularly Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta, who collected data around 1816, and C. Hart Merriam, who conducted fieldwork in 1902. Still, there are many aspects of the language that we will never recover.

Some people question whether revitalization is legitimate, since it must be imperfect. They feel that speaking a version of a language learned only from archival fieldnotes, and therefore learned rather imperfectly, is a hoax. This is an ethical question, because the objection at its heart, when it comes from outside the community itself (as it usually does), consists of a claim that a community does not have the right to make its own decision about whether to try to speak its heritage language. On the other side of this disagreement, those who feel that revitalization is a hoax may feel that an injustice is being perpetrated if someone represents himself as speaking a language which he did not learn directly from fluent speakers of an earlier generation.

We will first examine which aspects of Mutsun are recoverable, in order to address how imperfect the revitalization of this particular language may be. The phonetics, morpho-phonology, morphology, and basic syntax of Mutsun are relatively clear. Harrington was an excellent phonetician (Callaghan 1975, Okrand 1977), and his notes provide extensive information about segmental phonetics, although little about suprasegmentals. Marc Okrand (1977) compiled an excellent grammar of the language which covers basic syntax, and most of the morphology based on parts of Harrington’s notes.

However, lexical semantics is a severe and constant problem, since most Mutsun words have been through double translation. Forms were translated from Mutsun to Spanish by the speaker and the fieldworker, and separately much later from Spanish to English by later researchers (including the authors). The discrepancies in translations are sometimes astounding. How could J. Alden Mason (1916b) translate both Arroyo’s asit3 and asuryan as alternate forms of one word meaning ‘sparrow,’ when Merriam (1902), who was a naturalist and gave detailed translations for animal names, found aSSit to mean ‘California jay’?4 (Harrington clarified the form as aSit and confirmed Merriam’s meaning.) Does huyni mean ‘to fish’, ‘to turn about’, or ‘to cure’, or all three?5 Is curing an extension from fishing, are there two or three chance homophones involved, or is this an error? As for pragmatics and discourse structure, almost nothing is known, because the vast majority of the data is at the sentence level, with very few connected texts. Arroyo (1862) alphabetized the sentences he collected by first letter of the sentence, destroying any discourse context.

Because there are many gaps in the data that cannot be filled, the language will certainly change as a consequence of revitalization. If the optimistic goal of a community of fluent Mutsun speakers is achieved, the Mutsun they speak will clearly not be the same as the variety their ancestors spoke. We cannot even guarantee that the two varieties would be mutually intelligible. In response to the criticism that the revitalized form of a dormant language is not “real,” we would point out that any revitalized form of Mutsun is closer to the language that was spoken by the Mutsun ancestors than the alternative, since the obvious alternative is to speak English. A comparison with Hebrew may be useful: Modern Hebrew is very different from Biblical Hebrew (Kutscher 1982, Bolozky 1997). If Modern Hebrew is a legitimate version of Hebrew, as is widely accepted in Israel,6 then revitalized Mutsun will also be a legitimate version of Mutsun. Leonard (in press) also argues strongly in favor of the legitimacy of revitalized dormant languages, based on the experience of the Myaamia (Miami) community. Amery (2000, 2002) reflects similar views for Kaurna in Australia. Not surprisingly, those who work with revitalized languages seem to feel strongly that revitalized forms of languages should be considered legitimate.

One role of the linguists on the project is to help the Mutsun community learn a version of Mutsun that is as close as possible to how it was natively spoken. We cannot achieve native-like prosody, but we can certainly do better than memorizing individual lexical items from word lists and inserting them into English sentences, which is what tends to happen at the beginning of a revitalization project. We can use syntax that is at least representative of how Mutsun was often spoken, and we can determine how productive various morphological devices were and favor the productive ones, rather than using English-like structures (see also Hinton and Ahlers 1999).

For example, there are two sets of singular pronouns in Mutsun, an independent word set and a clitic set (Okrand 1977) (1).

(1)   kaan yete saaTe. (Harrington II.41/0157a)
  I later eat   
  ‘I will toast (it) later.’  
  amSi-ka saaTe kan-tiriikuse. (Harrington II.41/0157a)
  in order-I toast my-wheat-OBJ   
  ‘In order to toast my wheat.’  

The data show clearly that the clitic pronouns had higher frequency, but because the independent pronouns are more similar to English structures, it is easy for a beginning learner to favor those. We encourage the use of the clitic pronouns, unless one wants to use an independent pronoun for focus. We are not sure that the distinction was actually one of focus, but we are sure that the clitic pronouns are generally more Mutsun-like than the independent ones. It is encouraging that when we recently encountered a connected speech text in the Harrington materials for the first time, we were readily able to read most of it and, grammatically, it resembled the way we have been speaking Mutsun.

As linguists routinely teach in introductory linguistics courses, language change is normal, and all languages change. If Mutsun had been spoken continuously up to the present instead of having a gap from 1930 to now, it still would have changed. Modern Mutsuns would not be speaking the way their ancestors did, and would likely have some influence from English and Spanish on their Mutsun. Thus, we believe that it is ethically appropriate to revitalize Mutsun even though it will change in the process, but we also believe that it is important to revitalize it in a form that is as representative as possible of how Mutsun was formerly spoken. That is, we believe the best path (for this particular community) is to recognize that the language will change through revitalization, and to revitalize it despite this, but to apply linguistic knowledge in order to minimize such change where possible.

Rob Amery (2001) discussed attempts to revitalize the dormant Australian aboriginal language Kaurna, and to make the pronunciation of the revitalized language similar to living Australian aboriginal languages rather than to English. He pointed out that community members from aboriginal languages with fluent speakers would judge speakers of revitalized Kaurna harshly, and accuse the revitalization program of being a hoax, if Kaurna speakers’ pronunciation was obviously influenced by English. This is again a case of applying linguistic knowledge to minimize language change during revitalization, while respecting a community’s right to make their own decision about speaking their heritage language, even if they acquire it as adults.

The authors of this paper feel strongly that each community, not outside linguists and not members of other communities, has the right to make the decision about whether to revitalize the community’s language despite the changes caused by doing so. If the community of a dormant language does not want any changes to be made to the language their ancestors spoke, this means simply that the language cannot be spoken (Lobo 2001). The Mutsun community has decided that they would rather speak their ancestral language, even though it will change in the process, than allow it to be extinct instead of dormant. If linguists working on revitalization discuss this topic in depth with the community members (see Hinton 2001b), they may be able to avoid future disappointments and disputes when community members realize that no one knows exactly how something would have been said. This is a matter of teaching community members that the language will be changed through revitalization because of incomplete information and lack of native-speaker input, but also that language change is normal and that the alternative is to not use the language. Even imperfect revitalization has benefits, as discussed in section 4.2 below (Hinton 1998, Lobo 2001, Amery 2002). Furthermore, we feel that the issue of whether imperfect revitalization is legitimate is an ethical issue of self-determination: to say that imperfect revitalization shouldn’t be attempted in general, even by communities of which one is not a member, is to deny dormant language communities a right to make their own decisions about language policy. If linguists view the legitimacy issue this way, the view of the field on revitalization may change.

The current authors’ experience from the few language revitalization projects with which we have been involved is that objections to the legitimacy of dormant language revitalization almost always come from outside the community, both from linguists and from members of communities with living speakers. There are sometimes concerns from within the community about keeping the language accurate, but these tend to be secondary to the concern of gaining any knowledge of the language at all. That is, we have not experienced members of a dormant language community choosing not to work on revitalization at all in order to prevent any potential change in the language. Like disagreements about dialect (section 2.3 below), language purism in acquisition may be an issue within the community more often for endangered rather than dormant languages.

2.2 MODERNIZING THE LANGUAGE. Whether to create new lexical items for modern concepts can be an ethical issue, and how to create new lexical items can also be. Some communities choose not to create new words, because they hesitate to change the language or wish to stay close to the heritage culture, which did not include television, restaurants, or potato chips. Some communities prefer to discuss traditional topics in the ancestral language, but modern topics in English. This is an ethical issue, because it requires decisions about language change and about cultural change, and because it raises the question of what a traditional heritage language is for. Is it for communicating information about whatever one happens to be doing, including modern-life topics; for building identity as a cultural group; for teaching traditional practices; for strengthening interpersonal relationships within the group; or all of these? Members of groups that have been marginalized and oppressed may have strong emotional reactions about how the traditional language is used, which may make whether to create new words for modern items a question of ethics. Amery (2000:144–45) reported Kaurna people’s reactions to creating neologisms for modern items: some Kaurna people initially found such neologisms difficult to accept, but felt that they not only would get used to them, but in fact should, because it was important to view their language as useful for discussing the modern world, not just the world of the past.

Language leaders in the Mutsun community have decided to use Mutsun whenever possible. They want to revitalize the ancestral culture along with the language, but they want to be able to discuss modern daily life in Mutsun as well. Thus, they emphasize the use of the heritage language for discussing traditional culture topics, but not to the exclusion of modern topics. Lobo (2001) suggested waiting on modernization until there is a core group of speakers or learners to decide this issue.

Once the decision to modernize the language is made, it leads to the issue of how to create new lexical items. Mutsun, as is typical for a dormant language, lacks words for many concepts. This is both because of a legitimate lack of words for post-contact concepts (e.g., computer, potato chip, any animal or plant not native to the area), and because some words that probably existed in Mutsun were not recorded by the original sources. Any solution to forming new lexical items will involve changing the language in some way. Thus, the ethical issue of how much and what kinds of language change to allow, discussed above with regard to incomplete documentation and imperfect revitalization, also applies to creating lexical items for discussing modern concepts. Amery (2002) reported a claim by the linguist R. M. W. Dixon that creating new lexical items in a dormant language is inherently illegitimate, because the new words are created by nonnative speakers. Amery defends the creation of new words for the dormant language Kaurna. He argued that words created by a language committee or a workshop including community language activists and linguists do have legitimacy because of the process of suggestion and feedback such workshops use.

Most potential solutions to the lack of lexical items are well-known: one could form compounds, form new words by affixation, borrow from English or Spanish, borrow from languages related to Mutsun, or reconstruct missing forms based on related languages and what is known about historical sound changes (cf. Lobo 2001, Amery 2000, 2001, 2002, Blevins and Arellano 2004, and Grenoble and Whaley 2006 for other languages). This is an ethical issue, because it has a great impact on how Mutsun-like the reconstructed language will be. The Mutsun language revitalization movement has chosen to rely primarily on compounding and affixation. We do use Spanish borrowings that were already in use when Mutsun was being spoken if there are no good alternative words for the concept. For example, it seems reasonable to use the borrowing hileSa for ‘church’ (from iglesia), but native hottoh is used for ‘shoes’ instead of the documented borrowing sapaatu from Spanish zapato.

For nonendangered languages, borrowing may be useful and may not put the language at any risk. However, the need for new lexical items in Mutsun is so great that borrowings would likely overwhelm the lexicon in quantity. Reconstructing all the historical sound changes to allow prediction of unattested forms from related languages is not a task one can complete quickly,7 and none of the Costanoan languages have living speakers or have as much documentation as Mutsun. Therefore, we prefer compounding and affixation where possible.8

In Mutsun, one can apply linguistic knowledge in order to form new words in ways that were actually used in the language. Amery (1995) discusses doing this for the dormant Kaurna language in Australia, as well. For example the Mutsun structure “verb-Smin noun” (using the nominalizer -Smin to create noun-noun compounds) was very frequent, and was the primary way of modifying nouns, as in (2) (Okrand 1977:255).

(2)   ummuSmin tappur
  to rot -Smin wood
  ‘rotten-one wood’ or ‘the wood is rotten’
  sawreSmin tooTe
  to be fat -Smin meat
  ‘fatty-one meat’ or ‘the meat is fatty’

We know that Mutsun speakers used this structure to create more specific lexical items: the word for ‘hot springs’ is attested as takkaSmin sii, ‘hot-one water’ (Okrand 1977:255). Since this native construction was clearly very productive, we use it to form words for many of the new lexical items we need, as shown in (3).

(3)   patkaSmin toynon ‘apple’ (lit. ‘red-one fruit’)
  be red -Smin fruit  
  kuutYiSmin ursemsa ‘preschool’ (lit. ‘little-one learning place’)
  be small -Smin learn-LOC.NMLZ.  
  koseSmin sii ‘cola, soda pop’ (lit. ‘frothy-one water’)
  be frothy -Smin water  

-Smin is part of a rich system of nominalizers (agent, patient, instrumental, locative, and habitual agentive (Okrand 1977)). Many of the nominalizers are very productive, and they were clearly one major mechanism for creating lexical items (e.g., horkos ‘throat’ from horko ‘to swallow’ and instrumental -s, or amman ‘food, meal’ from amma ‘to eat’ and patient -n). For revitalization purposes, we treat -msa simply as locative, even though it is not completely understood. A locative nominalizer is very useful for forming words for rooms of the house or public locations and institutions, as in (4). Instrumental -s is useful for naming modern appliances (5). This use of nominalizers appears to be truer to Mutsun than other methods of compounding or derivation would be. Creating words for modern objects, but doing so by using the attested and productive morphology of the language, is another example of allowing the language to change while keeping the changes as close to the traditional language as possible.

(4)   eeTemsa ‘bedroom’
  sleep -msa  
  tumenimsa9 ‘kitchen’
  cook -msa  
  ammamsa ‘restaurant’
  eat -msa  

(5)   tumenis ‘stove’
  cook -s  
  anSa-mehes ‘television’
  far see –s  

Amery (2001) took this approach to word construction further for the Australian language Kaurna. He and the Kaurna community created new derivational affixes based on what is known about the historical development of attested affixes in the language, as well as creating new words by using both attested and created affixes. For Mutsun, we are fortunate that a large set of highly productive and useful derivational affixes are well attested. Thus, we have not felt a need to venture into creating new affixes.

2.3 DIALECT ISSUES. In revitalization of endangered (not dormant) languages, dialect differences are often a major problem that can be very damaging to a revitalization movement (Hinton 2001c). Writing a dictionary may be perceived as a statement that only one dialect is correct. This is an ethical issue, because linguists who are not members of the community may find that their work inadvertently affects how various dialect groups interact, how conflicts within the community are resolved, or which groups are recognized as having status within the community. In revitalizing a dormant language, unless multiple dialects are clearly documented, or there are still semi-speakers with differing dialects, this problem is unlikely to come up at all.

For Mutsun, the documentation from the time when there were enough speakers to have dialects (Arroyo’s work) does not reflect any clear dialects. This is probably not because Arroyo did not encounter any. Rather, his forms are extremely variable because of transcription inconsistency and general error, and he did not record any information about how many speakers he worked with, where they came from, who produced which sentences, or whether there were disagreements about any of them. The next major fieldwork was C. Hart Merriam’s, eighty-seven years later, with one of the last fluent speakers. Harrington worked with the daughter of Merriam’s speaker, so differences between their transcriptions must be due to the fieldworker or to language attrition, not to dialect. There is some possible evidence of dialectal variation, thanks to the very small amount of data (two+ pages) that Mason (1916a) collected from Josefa Velasquez, who was not closely related to Ascensión Solórsano (Harrington’s speaker). Mason transcribed komiste rather than Harrington’s kommeSte for ‘tired’ and sawi rather than Harrington’s and Arroyo’s saawe for ‘sing.’ This may represent a dialectal difference. However, there is not enough information to identify one dialect or another, let alone to choose one as “standard.”

Thus, dialect choices are one ethical issue that endangered language programs encounter, but dormant language revitalization may not. Amery (1995) similarly mentioned that fewer disagreements about how to pronounce particular words come up in revitalization work with a dormant language (Kaurna in Australia) than in work with languages for which community members still have more knowledge. However, as the Celtic language Cornish has undergone revitalization from dormant status, there have been severe disagreements within the revitalization movement about both the variety of the language and the choice of orthography (George and Broderick 2002, Grenoble and Whaley 2006). This situation shows that even for dormant languages, it is possible for divisions sufficient to harm revitalization to develop within the community over language varieties.


3.1 WHO SHOULD DO WHAT? ROLES OF COMMUNITY MEMBERS AND LINGUISTS. In this section, we turn to the topic of the relationship between communities and linguists. One question in this area is which aspects of the revitalization work can or should be performed by linguists, who may not be members of the community. If there are members of the community who can take enough time to become trained in linguistics so that they can perform all aspects of revitalization, or community members who already are linguists, this might be the best solution, because it gives the community maximal control over the revitalization program and maximal independence. This method is being used for Wampanoag in Massachusetts (Ash et al. 2001). Programs such as the Master’s in Native American Linguistics at the University of Arizona aim specifically to train community members to do this work. Of course, having community members become trained linguists does not preclude forming collaborations with outside linguists for particular parts of the revitalization project if the community finds this useful. However, many small communities may not have members who can train as linguists, due to their other life commitments (e.g., children, jobs, etc.). Thus, collaboration between outside linguists and community members, who often become informally trained linguists, may be useful. (We are assuming that the impetus for language revitalization comes from within the community, since it would not be useful or ethical for a linguist to try to impose a language revitalization program on a community.) Grenoble and Whaley (2006) also discuss the importance of revitalization being motivated from within the community, but also the potential usefulness of collaboration with outside linguists.

Collaborators will need to determine which tasks are best carried out within the community and which by any outside linguists. We have chosen to have the linguists, who are not Mutsun, perform database construction and most analysis of original sources, along with some development of teaching materials. Community members carry out some analysis of sources, substantial teaching materials development, and nearly all work within the community (e.g., workshops). (Geographic separation limits how often the linguists can participate in workshops within the community.) Community members and linguists practice together to develop fluency in Mutsun. The matter of which tasks are done by which project members is likely to depend on each particular community’s resources and needs.

We advocate that members of the community take charge of as many aspects of revitalization as practical, and that any outside linguists consult the community language leaders in all major decision making. In our case, a major overhaul of the practical orthography was initiated entirely from within the community, but in consultation with the linguists. This was motivated by community language leaders’ observation of the difficulty new learners had with the previous orthography. The community leaders then developed, and in fact tested and implemented, a new version of the orthography, but then consulted on it with the linguists. We feel that if one avoids having outside linguists come in to tell the community how to do things, revitalization is more likely to be truly collaborative and centered in the community, not in the knowledge of the linguists. Even if no members of the community are formally trained in linguistics, community members have knowledge that linguists may not possess of what is working for language learning and what is not. Community members who have become informally trained linguists may have better insights than professional linguists have about even linguistic issues such as how to represent the phoneme inventory orthographically. Furthermore, if the revitalization program has the feeling that outsiders are coming in to tell the community what to do, disagreements that hinder language revitalization are likely to arise. It is an ethical issue to respect the types of knowledge all participants in a revitalization project bring to the undertaking, and to decide how to integrate those types of knowledge to reach the goals of the project.

3.2 WHETHER, WHEN, AND WHAT TO PUBLISH: INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS. Native American communities differ widely in their policies about sharing language with the broader public. Some want all knowledge of the language to be kept within the community, or stipulate that the language should not be written down (see Pecos and Blum-Martinez 2001 for Cochiti Pueblo), while others readily publish language textbooks and teach their language to anyone who wants to learn it, regardless of background. Navajo, for example, can be studied at several universities. Some communities use password protection for online language lessons, while others make the pages publicly available (Garrett 2004).

Some communities restrict access to their languages for religious reasons. Other small communities may feel that they could be overwhelmed in numbers if others had access to their languages. Unfortunately, a few individuals claim heritages that they may not truly have in order to gain monetary rewards or recognition, and communities may be afraid of others misusing their heritage language in this way. However, if earlier fluent speakers had refused to share knowledge of their languages with people from outside their communities, there would probably be no linguistic records from which to revitalize the languages now. Furthermore, some may feel that the use of dormant languages has been restricted long enough by the languages having been made dormant, and that everything possible should be done to let them be used and known now.

The Mutsun community has decided to publish information on Mutsun (such as the dictionary, text collection, and perhaps the textbook), but only after the community has had access to it first for several years, so that the community has a head start on language work. Online textbook material will be password-protected until this question is revisited. Information about religious rituals will not be included in the text database. Thus far, most sensitive cultural or religious information we have found has been recorded in English or Spanish, so this has not excluded much material from the database.

The question of whether to share information with people outside the community can lead to differences of opinion between community members and outside linguists. Golla (2005) noted that the “Erasmian” (or humanistic) “spirit of study” values sharing information freely, and this may conflict with the need to construct local identity for small communities. Intellectual property rights is a serious topic for discussion between linguists and community members. In this article we do not take a position, except to suggest that what is right depends on the circumstances and wishes of each community.

3.3 CULTURAL REVITALIZATION ALONG WITH LANGUAGE REVITALIZATION. The Mutsun community has been working on cultural revitalization simultaneously with language revitalization. Cultural revitalization is an end in itself, but the Mutsun community is also finding that it is necessary for language revitalization. Since it is so difficult to learn a dormant language, it is unlikely that people would invest the necessary effort unless the language was intimately tied to their cultural identity (Lobo 2001). The main purpose of revitalizing the ancestral language is to provide cultural identity, and so cultural and language activities go together.

The Mutsun community gains information on traditional games, songs, dances, foods, harvesting, etc. from the Harrington notes and from other tribes. The community holds cultural workshops at which participants can learn basket weaving and other traditional activities, along with some heritage language material. As we strive to include material on traditional cultural topics in all language learning materials, the two aspects of revitalization come closer together. For linguists, it is important to keep an appropriate emphasis on cultural revitalization, even if an outside linguist does not directly do the cultural work. Cultural revitalization may not be of foremost interest to linguists, but it is important if language revitalization is to succeed. This is an ethical issue in part because cultural revitalization work is unlikely to be valued for linguists’ progression in their careers, and it is an area in which an outside linguist is not an expert. These factors may sometimes reduce linguists’ commitment to facilitating cultural revitalization. Furthermore, the relationship between cultural and language revitalization brings up the question of what is an end and what is a means to an end: language revitalization may be simply a means to the end of cultural revitalization, rather than an end in itself.

3.4 PRIORITIES OF THE LINGUIST AND OF THE COMMUNITY. Communities and linguists who work on their languages often have very different goals (Willie 2006). Because success in academic linguistics often requires great emphasis on producing publications that further linguistic theory, linguists working with communities may find it difficult to put enough time toward work that directly benefits the community, may lack interest in nontheoretical topics, or may simply not know how to generate products that help community members learn the language. This topic has been brought up for discussion several times in recent years, for example at LSA meetings (e.g., Langdon 1996, Crowhurst 2000). Even if a linguist is attempting to work entirely for the benefit of the community, his or her training can often lead to emphasizing the wrong things for revitalization purposes. Professional linguists often just do not know how to present grammar to nonlinguists, or whether it is even helpful to do so at a particular time for a particular aspect of grammar.

What are the goals of the community? For many communities, a primary goal may be to gain fluent speakers (whether there are currently none, only elderly speakers, or simply not enough speakers). Traditional linguistic fieldwork usually does not further that goal by much, even if the resulting materials are written to be readable by nonlinguists. One could ask whether the projects or materials one is working on (dictionaries, grammars, textbooks, or something else) will further the goal of fluency. If they do not, perhaps one could write them in a different way; but more often working on something else (e.g., creating immersion settings) might further the goal of fluency more effectively. Outside linguists are not the appropriate people to do all of the kinds of work that truly will lead to fluency (e.g., setting up an immersion preschool), but if they are interested in working for the benefit of the community, they can always be evaluating what contributes to fluency. A grammar of a language, no matter how well written and how accessible to community members, is unlikely ever to lead to someone becoming a fluent speaker. Furthermore, it is well known that most linguistic publications, even descriptive grammars, are not very accessible to nonlinguist community members. Hinton et al. (2002) went so far as to advise community members working with a grammar of their language to ignore the prose text and look only at the example sentences, advice that might come as a rude awakening to many linguists.

Making materials that lead to fluency is not just a matter of explaining syntax, phonology, or morphology in a way that is accessible to nonlinguists. This is important, but one must also determine whether to explain grammatical features overtly at all, whether to convey grammar through immersion, or perhaps whether to discuss grammar with a small group of community language leaders, who would then teach it to other community members through immersion and language games. For some language learners, analytical descriptions of grammar in addition to natural language input will be useful, but for many, immersion may be the only effective language-learning method. For dormant languages, this is problematic: since there are no fluent speakers from whom one can learn in an immersion setting, at least a few people must find a way to become moderately fluent speakers first.

For most linguists, we have to consciously teach ourselves how to focus on what creates fluency, how to explain grammar to nonlinguists accessibly, and how to determine when to explain grammar and when not to. Training as an academic linguist teaches us how to analyze languages, but it usually does not teach us how to discuss language with nonlinguists, how to think about what the community’s goals are, or how to develop fluent speakers. We hope that as more linguists spend time working with communities on revitalization, they will gain practice in these skills. We do not mean that linguists should not publish theoretical papers based on their work, or that all linguists should dedicate their lives to revitalization. We mean only that if linguists who work with a language community are aware of what the goals of the community are, and think about how those can be achieved, they are likely to maintain a better and more productive long-term relationship with the community. It is also more likely that both the linguists’ and the community’s language goals will be met. This is an ethical issue, because putting substantial effort into determining what the community’s goals are and how one can help the community meet them shows respect for the community with which one is working.

The question of what a linguist’s goals are leads to a related issue: the career cost of spending a large amount of time working on a language revitalization project. If the linguist wishes to pursue a career in academia, putting effort into a revitalization project may result in a lower number of theoretical publications, which could hinder the linguist in obtaining a tenure-track job or getting tenure. While some linguistics departments value language revitalization work, others value indigenous language work only if it leads to publications on linguistic theory, and still others may view revitalization work as not being a part of linguistics. There would be few, if any, tenure-track positions available for a graduate student who specializes in language revitalization. Publications of language-teaching materials are unlikely to count toward tenure. Revitalization also requires a large quantity of work that does not lead to publications, such as learning the language, practicing to gain fluency, and teaching the language to others.

However, revitalization work may also benefit one’s academic career, in addition to the personal benefit of fulfillment in helping the community regain their language. In our experience, undergraduate students find revitalization work appealing. We have taught about Mutsun revitalization in freshman general education classes and found this topic to benefit student engagement. We have also involved undergraduates directly in the Mutsun database work through independent study, thus providing them with research opportunities. Many undergraduate nonmajors find it difficult to connect with the field of linguistics in its more theoretical aspects, and revitalization can help solve this problem and thus improve one’s undergraduate teaching. Furthermore, journalists may find revitalization to be an interesting topic for a newspaper article, which gives university research greater exposure in the community. Such public coverage may be valued by the linguist’s department or college. We have found that revitalization work is well accepted by the mainstream press, and catches the interest of the general public.

Even for job hiring and tenure review, we have found that revitalization work is often viewed positively. However, the experience of the first and third authors (linguists) is that revitalization is viewed only as a good bonus, not as a good primary asset. Thus, in order to have a chance in academic linguistics, one may have to have a primary specialization in some other area, and carry on revitalization work as a separate part of one’s research. The first author carries out a research program in phonetics and psycholinguistics, completely separate from the Mutsun project. The third author is writing her dissertation on Mutsun morpho-phonology, using data that were collected for the revitalization project. Thus, to work on revitalization as an academic linguist, one must be willing to carry out at least two research programs, the nonrevitalization one of which must produce enough publications to meet one’s career goals. However, more and more Native American tribes are becoming able to finance the hiring of a linguist, making a career path focused entirely on revitalization more possible.


4.1 IS REVITALIZATION HOPELESS ANYWAY? We turn now to questions about the outcomes of revitalization. Will it really be possible to create fluent speakers of Mutsun? If a few people manage to attain semifluency, is that enough to “jump start” a language? Will these speakers be able to create a community in which Mutsun is used, and use Mutsun in enough language functions? Will children maintain interest through their teenage years? The most optimistic goal is a stable, self-sustaining community of Mutsun-English bilinguals who use Mutsun in the home and the Mutsun community, and perhaps eventually in immersion schools, and use English in the broader community. This is clearly a distant goal at best.

Some people question whether revitalization should even be attempted because of this. This is an ethical issue in that it strikes at whether linguistic knowledge should be used for revitalization projects. One could claim that working with a community on language revitalization unfairly raises community members’ hopes by misleading them into thinking that bilingualism in the heritage language is more likely than it is. Alternatively, linguists may unfairly discourage community activists from attempting to revitalize a dormant language because the linguists themselves believe that dormant language revitalization is impossible, or simply have never considered it as a possibility. Leonard (in press) relates how several professional linguists told Daryl Baldwin that there was no point to trying to learn his heritage language, Myaamia, because that was impossible. The first author of the current work has several times had the experience of other linguists reacting with incredulity to the notion of revitalizing a dormant language. Amery (2002:10) reported that revitalization of Kaurna is sometimes viewed as “simply a political exercise,” partially because some linguists believe it is impossible.

There have been cases of individuals and groups becoming fluent speakers of a language in similar situations. Daryl Baldwin did indeed teach himself his then-dormant ancestral language, Myaamia, and is now raising his children largely in the language (Hinton 2001a, Leonard 2004). Cornish was dormant, but now has approximately 100 fluent speakers (Grenoble and Whaley 2006). (George and Broderick estimated the number “who can talk Cornish all day without trouble” (2002:653) to be lower, but existent.) There are also first-language speakers for constructed languages such as Esperanto and Star Trek’s Klingon.10 Thus, it is possible for a few people to become relatively fluent speakers without native-speaker input. At that point, the situation becomes similar to severe endangerment. The well-known problems of increasing the number of speakers of severely endangered languages are so great (Fishman 2001a, 2001b) that one wonders how a community could overcome the massive impediment of first creating fluent speakers without native-speaker input and then create a sufficient immersion environment for others to learn the language well.

Some may feel that the small chance of success makes a revitalization project not worth the effort. In particular, linguists who have personal experience with the difficulty of maintaining bilingualism may see the undertaking as hopeless. However, many people who have experienced the loss of their heritage language will understand the motivation to bring as much of it back as possible. When the language was lost because of forced shift to a dominant language, and as part of the destruction of the culture, community members may feel so strongly about the value of the language that the chance of complete success is hardly an issue (Amery 1995, Lobo 2001).

Our position is that if a community wants to make the effort to undertake revitalization, it is worth the attempt, and no outsider has the right to discourage it. Amery (2002:14) asked “What right do linguists or other outsiders have to deny Indigenous peoples the right to connect with their linguistic heritage ... simply because they believe that it is impossible, politically motivated, or some kind of unnatural process?” Mutsun children already have far more access to their heritage language, and the cultural identity it provides, than their parents did as children. We are sure that the Mutsun revitalization project can at least go substantially further than the current stage of revitalization. We believe that a major factor in the success of revitalization is the extreme motivation a dormant language community often brings to the project (cf. Fishman 2001b for endangered languages). In the case of Mutsun, this has often led to successes we previously thought were impossible or unlikely. The long-term success of the project will depend on how broadly this motivation spreads through the community and how long it is sustained. The authors of this paper remain optimistic about the prospects for Mutsun.

4.2 IMPACTS OF REVITALIZATION. Revitalization has positive impacts both within and outside a particular community. Within the community, even knowledge of a few words of the language can give community members an increased sense of cultural identity (Amery 1995, Hinton 2001c). Beyond the community, revitalization projects for Native American languages raise awareness of language endangerment, language loss, and other issues faced by Native Americans. The large number of recent mainstream press articles on revitalization of endangered and dormant languages, as archived on the ILAT (Indigenous Languages and Technology) listserv (http://www.u.arizona.edu/~cashcash/ILAT.html) demonstrates this raised profile.

There is a potential danger that people reading accounts of language revitalization projects might conclude that it is acceptable to let endangered languages become extinct (or dormant), thinking that one can always bring them back later. Revitalizing a dormant language requires a tremendous amount of work and motivation, and at best does not result in complete acquisition of the language as it was formerly spoken. Even a language with only a few living speakers has a better chance through methods like the Master-Apprentice program (Hinton 1997, Hinton et al. 2002) and perhaps immersion preschools. Journalists often do not distinguish between memorization of a few lexical items and fluency, which may contribute to the mistaken idea that revitalization from archival sources is an adequate substitute for timely language revitalization from living speakers. We feel that this is a question of ethics, because language revitalization is an area where linguistic research can have more influence than usual on public opinion.


We believe that revitalizing dormant languages is indeed a valid undertaking, and that it is a useful application of linguistic knowledge. Since it is not a common or well-known application of linguistics, linguists sometimes react negatively to it. Such negative reactions seem to stem either from believing that learning a language without native-speaker input is illegitimate or impossible, or from simply never having considered the possibility. We have argued above that it is indeed legitimate, and it is possible—at least within limited but beneficial domains. The third factor we see as leading to negative reactions—lack of familiarity with revitalization—can be ameliorated. Part of the purpose of this article is to encourage linguists to consider dormant language revitalization for this reason.

We believe that linguists (from within or outside the community) can help make revitalization more effective and can reduce the amount of change imposed on the language. Applying linguistic knowledge to revitalization requires considerable thought about what methods will achieve what goals, and about which goals belong to whom. It also requires putting more emphasis on the needs of the community than is typical in most linguistic work, while also considering the impact of revitalization work on the linguist’s career. Revitalization is one possible application of linguistics, and it is one that we hope will be practiced more in the future. Revitalization projects lead both community activists and outside linguists to confront a wide variety of ethical questions, some regarding the language, some regarding relationships and roles in the community, and some regarding outcomes and effects of revitalization programs. We argue for careful consideration of these ethical questions at every stage of revitalization.


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Natasha Warner
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