Dictionary preserves language of the Haida

Posted: Sunday, June 26, 2005

Scholar John Enrico has compiled the first comprehensive Haida dictionary, the fruit of years of living among the last generation of people who spoke the language regularly at home.

About 40 people speak Haida today, not all fluently, Enrico said.

The Haida Dictionary was recently published by Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau and the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

At $279, the two-volume, 2,180-page set is not the sort of book you pull off the shelf when you want to know the Haida word for "dog."

It's a scholarly work from which academic linguists may further examine the relationship of Haida to other language families, a point of dispute. Educators also can develop teaching materials from it, said Tom Alton, editor at the Alaska Native Language Center.

The dictionary defines about 20,000 Haida words, including variations, and it provides examples of usage.

Enrico is an excellent linguist because of his commitment and perseverance, said Jeff Leer, a professor of linguistics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"He became pretty much fluent in Haida," Leer said. "His work is very, very solid and thorough."

Enrico, a grant-funded scholar unaffiliated with a university, first moved in 1975 to Masset, British Columbia, one of three Haida villages on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

In 1980, he took over the compiling of a Haida dictionary for the Alaska Native Language Center, and worked under its National Endowment for the Humanities grant for several years.

Enrico put the project aside for three years, but then received a grant to extend the dictionary to another Haida dialect.

Haida is spoken in two major dialects: southern at Skidegate, British Columbia, and northern at Masset, British Columbia, and in a variation in Hydaburg, Kasaan and Ketchikan.

The Haida population is estmated to be about 2,200 in Canada and Alaska.

What does it take to compile a dictionary?

"You need an extremely general knowledge of the language, because the dictionary encompasses all aspects of it," such as sound and sentence structure, Enrico said from his home in central Washington state.

"You need the broadest possible background you can get. That's probably why it's taken so long," he said.

Enrico first published articles about the Haida language in scholarly journals, on topics such as word order and tenses. His Ph.D. dissertation from the University of California at Berkeley is on the sounds in Masset Haida. The University of Nebraska Press later published Enrico's two-volume work on Haida syntax and a book of Haida songs.

The most efficient way to make the dictionary was to collect a lot of texts and stories and then gather the information necessary to understand them, Enrico said.

"If you keep at it long enough, you get a fairly complete picture of the language," he said. "One question leads to another."

Enrico lived with the family of a Masset elder, Florence Davidson, for about five years when he first moved to British Columbia. Davidson used to take in boarders.

After a spell elsewhere, Enrico returned and stayed with her for seven or eight more years.

The Davidson family was one of the few remaining households that used Haida regularly, Enrico said. Davidson died in 1993 at age 98.

"She was of the oldest generation, and had been taught the language by people who were fully fluent in it," Enrico said.

Davidson and her peers learned Haida from people who were born in the middle of the 19th century.

"When her generation died away, we lost the last contact with fully fluent speakers," Enrico said.

In all, Enrico received information about the Haida language from 44 Native speakers, most of them fluent and of Davidson's generation, he said.

There can be very subtle differences in the meaning of words, said UAF linguist Leer, who has compiled dictionaries in Tlingit and Alutiiq. Some words refer to aspects of material culture or social culture. Speakers of a language might have associations with a word that an outsider wouldn't imagine, Leer said.

"Too many linguists are looking at a language superficially," Leer said, "not really getting in there and looking at the glorious detail of a language. Without that, you don't get a global understanding of a language.

"It's a long process of learning that opens up windows along the way to where you can see very interesting and nuanced connections between facts."

Enrico was virtually a member of Davidson's family.

"As she was getting older and older, I did a lot of the household work and became a key person in the household," he said.

Some Haida people accepted Enrico and believed his academic work has value. But there were always others "who had a rather dimmer view," he said.

Enrico's book "is a continuation of a lot of work that was started in the community years ago," said Vincent Jameson, vice president of the board of the for-profit Haida Corp.

Jameson's grandmother, Helen Brown Sanderson of Hydaburg, was an educator who worked with University of Alaska linguist Michael Krauss in the early 1970s, before Enrico took over the project.

"I look at it as an accumulation of the effort of a lot of elders to pass this information on," Jameson said from Bellingham, Wash.

Although few people speak Haida today, others are learning it, such as through courses at the University of Alaska Southeast and Sealaska Heritage Institute, and in the Hydaburg school.

Jeane Breinig, a visiting literature scholar at UAS, has learned Haida from her mother in Kasaan and through academic courses.

"My mom's one of the last 10 speakers (in Alaska)," she said. "The language is in serious trouble. She could be the last generation if people now don't do something. I certainly have the opportunity and I don't want to miss it."

Because there are few fluent speakers and the Haida are scattered around the Northwest, it has become important to have Haida-language instructional materials, such as books and online materials, Breinig said.

"The dictionary's just another piece of that that we need to keep going," she said.

Sealaska Heritage is using a grant to develop a Haida-language curriculum for kindergartners through second-graders, said Keri Edwards, the institute's language department director.

The institute also sponsors a summer language program. And it matches master speakers with apprentices, mostly in Hydaburg, as a way to train a new generation of language teachers.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.

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