Linguistics Professor Wins Grant for Language Revitalization Project

Lori Harwood
July 15, 2003

Natasha Warner, a professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona, has won a Woodrow Wilson Public Scholarship Grant. The partnership grant, worth $10,000, will help fund a revitalization project for the Mutsun language. Only seven partnership grants, which are funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, are given out nationally.

According to the Woodrow Wilson Foundation website, "The Woodrow Wilson Foundation stands for educational excellence and innovation in service to the public good. The Foundation particularly promotes contributions by university-based humanists and artists to the United States' civic heritage and civic future."

The site describes Warner's project: "Although linguists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created extensive notes on Mutsun, a Native American language of central coastal California, the last fluent speaker died in 1930. Drawing on these century-old notes, Natasha Warner of the University of Arizona has already begun working with the tribe to resurrect the language, creating a phonetic spelling system, a partial draft of a textbook for community language classes, and a partial dictionary. The partnership will now expand the dictionary and textbook, provide distance learning software, and support the research team's travel to conduct face-to-face workshops with the Mutsun."

Warner has been working with the Mutsuns since she was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, and has found the work very rewarding. The interest and involvement of the Mutsuns in reviving their language is remarkable, she says.

"I don't think we can fully understand how much it means to the Mutsuns to regain their language," Warner said. "It is part of their identity. Their culture was nearly wiped out. Their language was wiped out. They were told there was no way of regaining that language. But in fact, there are tens of thousands of pages of archival materials on the language."

The grant will allow Warner to hire a research assistant to examine those archival materials that are more difficult to analyze due to problems such as poor handwriting.

Warner's efforts have allowed Mutsun community leader Quirina Luna-Costillas to create teaching materials for local children and to conduct community language lessons. Warner has even helped translate Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" and the "Happy Birthday" song. Because the Mutsuns are scattered, Warner will be working on creating distance learning tools.

Michael Hammond, head of the UA linguistics department, says, "There is growing interest on the part of Native American communities in revitalizing their moribund or dead languages. Warner's project is particularly exciting because she is working closely with community members and has already produced some very impressive work. This is also an area which our department and university are committed to, so it fits wonderfully with other work on Native American language maintenance and documentation going on here. This is a wonderful acknowledgment of Warner's efforts and abilities in this domain as well."