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Tracking what's lost

Thirty years ago, linguists at Mary College in Bismarck tried to recruit Alex Gwin as a fluent speaker for their studies in native languages. He spurned the offer, a decision he would later regret. "I was quite young then, a renegade, and our lan...

Thirty years ago, linguists at Mary College in Bismarck tried to recruit Alex Gwin as a fluent speaker for their studies in native languages.

He spurned the offer, a decision he would later regret.

"I was quite young then, a renegade, and our language was quite strong then," he said.

"But, due to the times, it's a necessity," he added.

A few years ago he decided to collaborate with linguist John Boyle, who is working on his doctoral dissertation on Hidatsa at the University of Chicago.

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Boyle has been visiting the extended Gwin family for several years, collecting stories, writing a grammar primer and compiling a dictionary database.

He has studied transcripts and recordings collected by linguists who visited Fort Berthold around the turn of the previous century. He also was able to listen to a taped story of the Gwin family history left by their matriarch, Pearl Burr Young Bear.

"It's really interesting to see how the language has changed from most speakers a hundred years ago and the speakers today," he said.

For instance, Boyle discovered Hidatsa speakers quit using a system to allow listeners to follow references to people in extended conversation.

Once, Hidatsa speakers used suffixes at the end of their sentences to signal whether a subject had switched. English speakers use pronouns, such as "he'' or "she,'' in much the same way.

In Hidatsa, the suffixes serve as a device linguists call "clause chaining" and "switch references."

"It's interesting because (the Gwins') grandmother definitely had this switch," Boyle said. "This is definitely the effect of language attrition. These are the things that get lost early in language."

Another sign of a dying language, he said, is the tendency inexperienced speakers have of imposing the grammatical structure of the dominant language spoken around them.

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That borrowed sentence structure doesn't show up in the speech of the Gwin siblings, for whom Hidatsa was their first language, but it is common for those who learn it as a second language.

For example, an English speaker would say, "We wanted to get our skulls," but that would be "Our skulls get want," in a literal translation from Hidatsa.

Boyle, who teaches English and history at a high school in Chicago, became interested in linguistics after he was exposed to the field in a course to be certified to teach English as a second language.

Intrigued, he decided to pursue graduate work in linguistics, and chose Hidatsa because few linguists were working on the language.

As a sidelight, Boyle also is working on a project to preserve the Mandan language, which, like Hidatsa, is in the Siouan family of languages. Hidatsa and Mandan, though closely related culturally, diverged into separate languages about 3,000 years ago, he said.
Language family trees

His work on Hidatsa, in partnership with the Gwins, remains his major focus, however.

"Hopefully I can help them, if not revive the language, at least document it and preserve it for future generations."

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