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Linguists’ Quest To Preserve Languages in Danger

SALT LAKE CITY – A Utah linguist says dozens of native languages across the Americas could disappear within a few generations with the downsizing of a prominent university program.

The University of Utah recently announced it was closing the Center for American Indian Languages because of shrinking resources and the departure of its founder Lyle Campbell.

The College of Humanities instead will concentrate language-preservation efforts on Utah’s tribal tongues.

The narrower mission undermines the university’s academic credibility, grumbles Jeff Pynes, a doctoral candidate who was doing research at the native-language center. A 2006 Berkeley graduate, Pynes was drawn to the University of Utah by its reputation for language preservation.

As part of his work, Pynes has made dozens of extended visits with the Tolupan and other indigenous people of Central America, recording their speech and stories in an effort to document their words, syntax and grammar.

Ives Goddard, a senior linguist with the Smithsonian Institution who served on the Utah center’s advisory board, says the academic discipline is “not just about rescuing some cute little language.”

Rather, “it’s learning about human intellectual capacity in general,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune . “The goal is to find the universal hard-wire blueprint for language everyone is born with.”

About 40 percent of the world’s 7,000 languages are considered endangered. More than half of them will go extinct within a century, experts say.

English, Spanish, French and Portuguese are replacing the languages spoken by many of the Americas’ indigenous groups.

Experts said there were 280 languages spoken in what became the United States when Europeans began colonizing North America in the 17th century.

Only 151 remain, and just 20 are being picked up by children, Campbell’s team determined.

The University of Utah’s effort has been credited to the late Wick Miller, who started recording Shoshone speakers decades ago and created an archive.

Arriving at the school in 2004, Campbell sought to shape the Center for American Indian Languages into a leading defender of language diversity. He launched an annual international conference, built a partnership with the Smithsonian and secured more than $3 million in federal grants.

However, the center has largely been left to languish with few graduate students showing an interest in languages.

“I was working so hard my health was suffering,” said Campbell. At age 68, he left in 2010 for Hawaii.

Two weeks later, Pynes arrived to discover the scholar he hoped to have as a mentor was already gone.

Campbell had trouble gaining faculty support for building up the language center, Humanities Dean Robert Newman said.

“The fact that he wasn’t persuasive to the majority is something that sometimes happens in faculty governance,” Newman said.

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