October 5, 2007

Yu compiles dictionary of dying language

Alan Yu, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University, is currently recording and cataloguing the nearly extinct Native American language “Washo” in an online dictionary to be completed in 2009.

At present, only about 20 tribespeople speak the language, which springs from a region bordering California and Nevada, according to Yu.

Yu, who has been working on this project with graduate and undergraduate students at the University since 2004 after receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is pessimistic about the survival of Washo. He characterizes Washo as a “moribund language”—one that elders are no longer actively teaching to children.

“The fact is that [Washo] is an endangered language,” Yu said. “The people who are speaking it right now are probably going to be the last group of speakers in all likelihood, unless the [native speakers] start speaking to their kids in Washo daily.”

Nonetheless, Yu says his primary goal is to create a full record of the language that can be used for both humanistic and scientific purposes. Washo has no written tradition, so Yu says the online dictionary will emphasize its audio component.

Yu spends his summers and vacations in California interviewing tribe members fluent in the language. To create this “oral dictionary,” he is compiling audio recordings of words and syllables. Yu has completed 3,000 audio entries to date, but says he hopes to reach 5,000 by 2009.

“The purpose of having an oral medium transmitted and preserved, Yu said, “is so that, should a Washo in the future want to learn the language, they can hear an elder speaking the language in the flesh, so to speak.”

Yu equates studying a language like Washo to discovering a new species of animal, because “you never know what you’re going to learn or what you’re missing out on until you fully describe it and understand it.”

Linguists have found no relation between Washo and the languages of neighboring tribes, Yu said, so these mysteries make the language particularly interesting to study.

“There are so many languages in the world on the verge of extinction, and it’s our job as linguists to study them before they go away forever.”

His online dictionary can be accessed at