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Keeping a Language Alive

In 1959, Dartmouth anthropologist Gordon Day reported there remained fewer than 50 fluent speakers of the Native American Abenaki language. In 2003, Dartmouth student Jesse Beach '04 could locate only four. With the help of a Richter grant from the College, Beach is trying to document and explain the workings of this dying language for future generations.

Jesse Beach '04
Jesse Beach '04 is completing a morphology of Abenaki for his senior thesis. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

"It's not that there's a struggle to bring the language back. It's more a struggle to keep it at all," says Beach. A linguistics major from New Jersey, Beach currently is completing a morphology-a study of word structure and how it affects sentence structure-of Abenaki for his senior thesis.

Linguistics has been a passion for Beach since his first introductory class during fall of his first year. "Once I realized there was a science behind languages, I couldn't study anything else. The stuff just formalized what I already kind of had figured out intuitively," says Beach, who is fluent in German and French in addition to knowing some Chinese.

Beach became interested in Abenaki after running across a book of scripture written in the language during the course of his job at Rauner Library. Last spring and summer, he traveled to Abenaki communities in Vermont and Quebec, hoping to meet proficient speakers of the language who would work with him on his thesis project. He learned that many Abenaki went "underground" with their culture and language during the 1930s and 1940s because of eugenics programs at the University of Vermont and elsewhere that targeted Native Americans. Parents stopped teaching their children the language, which explains "how you go from 350 speakers in 1902 to only four in 2003," Beach says.

The scarcity of speakers has meant that Beach is focusing his research on texts he's gathered. Morphology analyzes the smallest units of meaning in a language. A simple example in English is the letter "s," which, when added as a suffix to a noun, suggests plurality. Abernaki, which is considered part of the Algonquin family of languages, exhibits an extremely complex relationship between word and sentence structure.

"The morphemes [word parts] tell a lot about what's going on in the sentence-what tense it is, who is being acted upon, plurality," and other factors, says Beach.

"The nature of the data Jesse's working with makes his project a difficult task," says David Peterson, assistant professor of linguistics and cognitive science, who is Beach's thesis advisor.

In most cases, the rare and fragile texts have no careful translations, and the linguistic analyses that have been done often use obscure terminology particular to languages in the Algonquin family. One of Beach's goals is to help translate some of this specialized Algonquin linguistic tradition into common terminology that all linguists will recognize. He also wants to make the language accessible to non-linguists who want to know more.

"There are holes in our knowledge of Abenaki that might be filled by what Jesse does," says Peterson.

- By Tamara Steinert

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Last Updated: 5/30/08