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Linguist bringing dormant Indian language to life
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
04.10.2004 Tucson, Arizona
By Gerald M. Gay
UA assistant professor has spent years working with tribe
Natasha Warner has committed herself to bringing new life to a
For the past seven years, the assistant University of Arizona linguistics
professor has dedicated her time to the Mutsun tribe of central coastal
California - helping revive a dialect whose last fluent speaker died in 1930.
"It's a rewarding thing to be able to try to give knowledge of linguistics to
help a community," said Warner, 34.
The Mutsun (pronounced MOOT-soon) tribe has historically lived in the San Juan
Bautista region of California. Today there are 700 enrolled members of the
tribe, with an estimated 2,000 descendants altogether.
An advocate for the language's return, Warner is not Mutsun herself. Her
interest in the language began when she was a graduate student at the University
While earning a doctorate in linguistics with a focus on Japanese, she
volunteered for the school-sponsored Breath of Life program - a workshop that
allowed indigenous tribes of the area access to the university's extensive
"It seemed like a good way to use what I had learned as a linguist to try and be
helpful," she said.
Working as a mentor with Mutsun representatives, Warner helped translate texts
that had been recorded by early tribe members and mission priests in the area.
She became so involved with the work that she continued to assist the tribe even
after graduating and taking up a post-doctoral position in the Netherlands.
Today, when Warner is not teaching phonetics and speech technology, she and a
small group of student volunteers spend their time working on all aspects of
Their main goal: a complete and comprehensive English-to-Mutsun dictionary.
And the group is well on its way, with more than 5,600 entries already in place.
The linguist has even worked with tribe leaders, updating their vocabulary to
include terms not around when the language thrived.
A fluent Mutsun speaker, of which there are none yet, could now watch "American
Idol" on his or her ansYa-mehes (television) or send ansYa-ennes (e-mail) over
"The Mutsun community said they wanted to be able to use their language for
their modern-day life," she said. "So I helped them try and make up new words in
a way that's faithful to the way the language would have done it."
She added: "We are getting patterns that existed in the original language and,
with those patterns, making a large number of new words."
Warner said that bringing back an entire language that has been dormant for more
than seven decades is a huge task. She has been working hands-on with the Mutsun,
attending workshops and visiting the community as often as possible. Her group
is also in the process of compiling a learning textbook for tribe members.
One of the problems Warner said she has is that there are no audio recordings of
the language so it is almost impossible to know exactly what the original
language sounded like - she guesses it comes close to Spanish or English, based
on the similar sounds.
Still, she said, her group members do their best with what they have, using the
detailed information written in the historical documents of the area.
She recalled a personal triumph she experienced last winter break on a visit to
the Mutsun community, where she, her assistant Lynnika Butler and Quirina Luna-Costillas,
head of the Mutsun revitalization movement, made a small but important
"We were trying to work on getting to where we could speak the language," Warner
said. "By the end of the week, the three of us were sitting around telling
stories. There was a lot of hesitation and it wasn't fluent, but at least we
were doing it! It means we are really on the brink of using the language
Warner has dabbled in other language projects but has no plans to leave the
language she has grown to love.
"This isn't something you do for a little while and just stop," she said. "This
is the sort of project that tends to take up your whole life."
° Contact reporter Gerald M. Gay at 573-4137 or