Grant extends Tlingit language project

Posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2009

JUNEAU - The University of Alaska Southeast is in line for a second National Science Foundation grant to help preserve Alaska Native Languages. The $450,000 grant continues a five-year project that began with a $360,000 grant in 2007. The NSF "Documenting Endangered Languages" initiative includes the recording and documentation of spontaneous Tlingit conversation, bilingual annotation of the recordings and the archiving of hundreds of audio tapes of Tlingit oratory, narratives, and celebrations.

Alice Taff, UAS research assistant professor of Alaska Native Languages, wrote the grant and initiated the use of software that enables researchers to annotate Tlingit sound waves with English translations. "This is a record of contemporary Tlingits talking to each other in real conversation," said Taff.

Taff demonstrated the program at a recent cultural infusion meeting on the UAS campus. She showed a video of an elder remembering his father's anger at his teachers after they hit the back of his hands for speaking then-forbidden Tlingit in the public school. Underneath the video are two bars. One is the audio wave in Tlingit. Under the wave is the written English translation.

The project is part of a worldwide effort to revitalize and sustain languages that are falling into disuse.

Part of the grant also will go toward cataloging of UAS faculty and renowned Tlingit history authors Nora and Richard Dauenhauer's collection of 400 Tlingit tapes recorded over 40 years.

As a spin-off from these NSF-funded projects and with the help of another grant from Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, UAS student Amanda Bremner of Yakutat videotaped Tlingit elders describing the effects of climate change on subsistence.

"This project has laid the groundwork for me to truly understand the Tlingit language," Bremner said. "I have noticed my ear is better tuned for hearing specific sounds and words. I have improved drastically in my Tlingit transcriptions. It has also given me vital linguistic experience by allowing me to learn first hand how to break down sentences while translating into English."

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