A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Studying a Language—and Maybe Preserving It, Too

By Art Taylor, MFA '06 on June 27, 2019

The Alaskan island of St. Lawrence sits in the Bering Sea, closer to Russia than to the Alaskan mainland by a difference of almost 100 miles. The tiny town of Gambell on the island’s northwestern coast sits on the edge of the continent,” says Sylvia Schreiner, assistant professor of linguistics. “Looking west from the beach,” Schreiner explains, “you’re looking across the International Date Line at tomorrow in Siberia.”

Mason linguistics professor Sylvia Schreiner, picking edible plants about 10 miles outside Gambell, Alaska. Photo provided.

This remote island boasts the world’s densest concentration of people fluent in Yupik, an Alaskan Native language. Only around 1,000 people can actually speak it, according to Schreiner, so the language is considered endangered—a result of generational shifts, national aims toward English-only education that began in the 1950s and ’60s, and the influx of English-language culture through radio, TV, and the internet.

“While perhaps 90 percent of elders are fluent in the language, probably more like 5 to 30 percent of children under 18 are fluent, with variance for the ages in between,” Schreiner explains. “The younger generation is just as interested in watching popular (English-language) videos, shows, and movies as kids are back on the mainland.”

Last year, Schreiner and Lane Schwartz, a colleague from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC, where Schreiner had worked prior to coming to Mason), were awarded a National Science Foundation grant for their study of Yupik and its rare linguistic properties and to help support the community’s efforts to keep the language alive. The grant supports a team of researchers from Mason and UIUC for a period of three-and-a-half years.

Their mission draws on both Schreiner’s specialty—documentary and formal linguistics—and Schwartz’s—computational science and computational linguistics. While their collaboration began in 2017, the roots of the project stretch back into Schwartz’s own childhood on the island in the 1980s. His parents had been offered teaching jobs there, and his classmates came to school speaking Yupik; they learned to speak English in their classes. Today, however, many of the island’s schoolchildren are speaking English first and only learning Yupik as a second language.

As an adult, Lane knew that the language was endangered, and he wanted to see if the village would be interested in having a couple of linguists try to lend a hand in the maintenance and revitalization process,” says Schreiner. “As Lane’s background is in computer science, he was interested in building computer tools for the speakers—things like a digital dictionary, a spellchecker, e-books—as well as in making a better record of the language.”

From left, researchers Lane Schwartz and Sylvia Schreiner with graduate research assistants Benjamin Hunt and Emily Chen on the mountain overlooking the village of Gambell, Alaska.

Schwartz approached Schreiner about being the documentation expert on the project based on her experience in endangered language documentation from her work on an NSF-funded project on Scottish Gaelic, work she continues now.

“In terms of linguistic theory, I study how words and sentences are formed in different languages; in terms of practice and outreach in my career, I had been wanting to do more work on endangered languages. I found that Yupik seemed to have a lot of interesting grammatical features that might help me answer some of the theoretical questions I pursue in my research program.”

The core research team includes Schreiner and Schwartz, research assistants Emily Chen at UIUC and Benjamin Hunt and Giulia Masella Soldati at Mason, and several other volunteers at Mason who transcribe audio, digitize materials, and more.

In the summer of 2018, Schreiner, Schwartz, Chen, and Hunt spent several weeks on the island, and Schreiner and Schwartz returned for 10 days around Thanksgiving. Their field research included gathering stories and background information in English and in Yupik and strengthening their understanding of how the language works.

In January, Schreiner and Hunt presented a paper, “The syntax of negation in St. Lawrence Island/Central Siberian Yupik,” at the 2019 meeting of the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas. During the spring, the entire team split up their time in the area, to include working on digitization at the Alaska Native Language Archive in Fairbanks, work they are continuing this summer.

In between trips,” Schreiner says, we work on organizing and analyzing the data, building the computer programs and tools, and doing clean up and postprocessing of the scanned materials for digitization.

While scholarly interests drive much of their work, both Schreiner and Schwartz are also committed to working with community members and village councils to pursue their own goals to preserve the language—a commitment that hasn’t always been part of the history of linguists working with Native, First Nations, and Aboriginal communities.

It’s important to us to direct our research in such a way that we are benefiting the community at least as muchif not morethan linguistics or computer science as a whole,” says Schreiner. “For a language with a handful of speakers left and no written description, the immediate goal for the community and for language scientists may be as extensive documentation as possible—such that future generations could reconstruct from the records some semblance of the original language. For a language with a healthier number of speakers, and a decent amount of existing documentation, the focus may instead be on creating effective pedagogical materials for younger generations, to ensure continuation of the language.

With only around 1,000 fluent speakers, St. Lawrence Island Yupik falls somewhere in between those two situations.

 Both the community and the researchers see today as a critical time for the language, and the community itself has formed a language revitalization group to generate ideas and build initiatives.

“We see our role as something like facilitators,” says Schreiner. “We have access to resources that community members do not, and we can put those resources to work for the benefit of the language and its speakers. Along the way, we are benefiting language and computer science as well.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in English Matters.


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