Original URL: http://www.dailystar.com/dailystar/accent/17419.php

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 once-dormant language.
 
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 of California-Berkeley.
 
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 historical archives.
 
"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 Mutsun.
 
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 Internet.
 
"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 breakthrough.
 
"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 productively."
 
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 ggay@azstarnet.com.

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