The Endangered Language Fund of Yale Names Recipients of 2002 Grants

Siberian Yupik, an “international” language common to one people native to two continents, is among 12 languages receiving support this year from the Endangered Language Fund (ELF) of Yale University.

The Yupik language, chosen this year by ELF from among 50 applicants, is unique in that its speakers span two different nations on two separate continents. An Eskimo-Aleut language, Yupik is spoken on St. Lawrence Island in the United States and in Siberia, part of the former Soviet Union. Aggressive Russification under the Soviets left the Siberian speakers little opportunity to use their native language, while American Yupiks have recently tended to grow up bilingual in Yupik and English. The two groups had little chance of any kind of communication during the Cold War, but since then, travel has again become possible. The only language that these distant relatives share is Yupik, but Russian speakers lag behind Americans in their ability to speak it.

With a grant from ELF, Nikolai Vakhtin of the European University in St. Petersburg will come to the rescue of the speakers and the language itself with a travel phrase book he is developing for Russian Yupiks visiting the U.S. A Yupik phrase book is more practical than English for Russian speakers, since many already have at least a listening knowledge of their ancestral language. The sudden promotion of Yupik to the status of an international language has revived pride and interest in the language on both sides of the Bering Strait.

Dedicated to the scientific study of languages at risk of extinction, and supporting native efforts to maintain and disseminate them, ELF is a nonprofit organization affiliated with the linguistics department of Yale University.

Since it began in 1995, the fund has provided grants to native communities and scholars for a variety of proposals to preserve languages that are spoken and understood by fewer and fewer individuals. Projects include building text lexicons, preparing videotaped instruction in the language and supporting “generation skipping” language lessons between community elders and the generation of their grandchildren.

More than 60 languages have benefited from the program. Recipients represent indigenous people of every inhabited continent and many islands scattered throughout the world. The Ban Khor Sign Language, used in remote pockets of northeastern Thailand, and Domari, an Indic language spoken by formerly itinerant artisans living in Jerusalem, are among the languages-sometimes spoken by fewer than a handful of people-that ELF has helped to revive or preserve for future generations.

Other projects that received ELF grants this year include the recording of Creek Indian hymns still sung in churches of Oklahoma; developing teaching materials for Kawki, a language of Peru; helping the Faetar-speaking community in Italy as they try to maintain this Francoprovençal language in their schools; and gathering texts in Wutung, a disappearing language of the far north-west of Papua New Guinea.

The full list of projects can be found at: http://www.ling.yale.edu/~elf/grants2002.html

For more information about ELF, visit their homepage: http://sapir.ling.yale.edu/~elf/

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