Who Speaks Wukchumni?

A nice little NY Times story by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee about the efforts of the family of Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language of Central California, to preserve the language and the dictionary she worked on for years; it’s accompanied by a short documentary where you can hear her tell bits of a story with onscreen translation (I could watch that sort of thing for hours). I know a lot of people think it’s futile as well as impractical to try to preserve dying languages, but most of what’s truly important to humans beyond basic food and shelter is impractical and probably futile, so I say good for the would-be rescuers. (Thanks, Bonnie!)

Comments

  1. ” I know a lot of people think it’s futile as well as impractical to try to preserve dying languages, ”

    This kind of conversation is on the level of trying to talk about the sunset with your dog when you are out on a walk. the best you can hope for is that the dog appreciates the attention, because that’s about as she is going to be able to grasp.

    On top of everything else, each language is a work of folk art, developed and refined over centuries by each speaker as part of a speech community. Lexicons and grammars have structures, every bit as much as music or works of architecture do, and they are often quite beautiful.

    But the main argument, and the one made by the groups trying to preserve these languages, is the effort is really about identity and continuity., and their view is dispositive after all.

  2. Well said!

  3. hi , i just saw this small documentary on the Wukchumni that showed Marie Wilcox and if anyone knows how i can get a copy of the Wukchumni Comprehensive Dictionary …please email me and let me know , and if it isnt finished yet perhaps let me know when it will be available ? Thankyou so so much :)

  4. Interesting.

    It strikes me that the emphasis seems to be on preserving the lexicon, and maybe to a lessor degree, the phonology. There is no mention of the grammar. The grammar of some of the native American languages may be the most interesting feature. The complexities of some stagger the mind of this morphologically impoverished English speaker. This may be also true of ‘Wukchumacallit.’

  5. marie-lucie says:

    This particular project is about compiling a dictionary, but that is not the only thing known about the language (better known to linguists as Wikchamni). There is a gammar published by Geoffrey Gamble a few years ago, in addition to a lot of information scattered through Stanley Newman’s 1944 volume on Yokuts (W is one of the Yokutsan languages or perhaps dialects). These languages indeed have complex morphology, especially in verb forms.

  6. GeorgeW,
    “It strikes me that the emphasis seems to be on preserving the lexicon, and maybe to a lessor degree, the phonology. There is no mention of the grammar. The grammar of some of the native American languages may be the most interesting feature.”

    Edward Vajda (I think it was) pointed out how in many of these languages there is no clear line between the lexicon and the grammar because the grammar drives the derivational processes that generate the lexicon.

  7. Jim, I may be wrong, but I think Yokuts languages don’t rely as heavily on derivation as for example Athabascan and other NW languages.

  8. “Edward Vajda (I think it was) pointed out how in many of these languages there is no clear line between the lexicon and the grammar because the grammar drives the derivational processes that generate the lexicon.”

    Interesting observation. Can a content word consist only of inflectional morphemes?

  9. No, by definition. But in a polysynthetic language, a single root can generate hundreds or thousands of words, and if it also object-incorporates, the number is effectively unlimited.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Y: <i.I think Yokuts languages don’t rely as heavily on derivation as for example Athabascan and other NW languages.

    I find the end of this sentence rather misleading. Athabaskan languages and their relatives Tlingit and Eyak have a very definite structure which is quite distinct from those of other American languages, including those in the NorthWest (a category which does not normally include the Subarctic). Yokuts (or the Yokutsan languages) in California belongs linguistically to the NW area and more specifically to the Penutian group, which is (in my opinion erroneously) not accpted by all specialists but in which the member languages do have many features in common at a deep level, which are quite unlike Athabaskan features.

  11. m.-l., point taken. What I meant was that both Athabascan and, say, Wakashan, use word derivation heavily, albeit in very different ways, and both can be called polysynthetic in that way, unlike Yokuts.

  12. “But in a polysynthetic language, a single root can generate hundreds or thousands of words”

    But, each can be analyzed as to the basic lexical morpheme and the various grammatical affixes, right?

    Has it been proposed that language speakers mentally store some of these inflectional derivations as individual lexical units rather than using a process to build the final product?

    (I am examining the proposition that “there is no clear line between the lexicon and the grammar”)

  13. marie-lucie says:

    GW, I think the point is that many affixes are not just grammatical (eg “transitive”, “plural”, “first person singular”, etc) but lexical (eg “by hand”, “acting on a round object”, etc). But not everyone agrees on the exact definition of “polysynthetic”. I think that Athabaskan, Eskimo-Aleut and Wakashan/Salishan are quite different structurally although all have been called polysynthetic by some linguists.

  14. “I think the point is that many affixes are not just grammatical (eg “transitive”, “plural”, “first person singular”, etc) but lexical (eg “by hand”, “acting on a round object”, etc).”

    This begs the question as to what ‘grammatical’ is. I would think that, as an example, obligatory evidentials would be grammatical as much as number, person or the other more common affixes.

  15. Has it been proposed that language speakers mentally store some of these inflectional derivations as individual lexical units rather than using a process to build the final product?

    Inevitably so, since some of them don’t have compositional meaning. From the WP article on incorporation, which is an extreme case of inflection (so to speak):

    In Yucatec Maya, for example, the phrase “I chopped a tree”, when the word for “tree” is incorporated, changes its meaning to “I chopped wood”.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Has it been proposed that language speakers mentally store some of these inflectional derivations as individual lexical units rather than using a process to build the final product?

    Once upon a time I read, probably in some place linked to by some Wikipedia article, that the speakers of some Iroquoian language will hesitate to compose word forms when they haven’t heard that form of that word before. To a much smaller extent, I think I’ve observed this (mainly on myself) in German, where it’s entirely possible not to have encountered some of the rarer forms of the rarer words – though another factor is that German inflection is much more irregular than probably anything in Iroquoian.

  17. On a lesser level, Classical Arabic is often treated as if all its verb forms had legitimate compositional semantics, when it’s probable that some did not and some weren’t used at all.

  18. Once upon a time I read, probably in some place linked to by some Wikipedia article, that the speakers of some Iroquoian language will hesitate to compose word forms when they haven’t heard that form of that word before.

    We discussed that phenomenon for English and Russian here (as well as German, thanks to David Marjanović, and French, thanks to marie-lucie).

  19. marie-lucie says:

    JC: In Yucatec Maya, for example, the phrase “I chopped a tree”, when the word for “tree” is incorporated, changes its meaning to “I chopped wood”.

    I think this is a misunderstanding: the Maya word must mean both ‘tree’ and ‘wood’ (as do some other languages), and the incorporated form has the generic, uncountable meaning, while the non-incorporated noun is countable and can also add other words for more precision, such as ‘a tall tree’, ‘a fir tree’, ‘a tall fir tree’, etc. In English too, incorporated nouns (found mostly in compounds such as “truck driver”) have a generic meaning and cannot be counted or modified when within the compound.

    David: speakers of some Iroquoian language will hesitate to compose word forms when they haven’t heard that form of that word before

    Linguists often try to “elicit” forms by trying English (or other dominant language) sentences on speakers of the language they are studying. In inflected languages, some apparently possible forms are hardly ever used because the specific combination of the lexical meaning and the grammatical form does not often come up in everyday speech or even in most writing. In French, there are many verb forms found in works such as “201 French verbs” and similar handbooks, in which the student (native or not) is presented with many “irregular” verb forms which are vanishingly rare even in writing. Asked to supply such forms to a linguist (or even to use them in some formal context), most speakers would at least hesitate about the proper form to use, even if they don’t give up altogether and use another turn of phrase. The forms of the passé simple are notorious for this, since even if the tense is found in most earlier novels and works of history, it is usually encountered in the 3rd person (singular or plural), and for most people, supplying even these rarely heard forms, let alone the other personal forms, is often a matter of guesswork.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    LH, thanks for linking to STRIDDEN. It was great fun to reread it!

  21. marie-lucie says:

    GW: I would think that, as an example, obligatory evidentials would be grammatical as much as number, person or the other more common affixes.

    Good point! Those affixes are indeed a grey area at the present time. I think that “obligatory” may be the crucial factor in deciding whether an affix is grammatical or (in this case) pragmatic. But then things like a plural marker in Chinese (which is a separate word not an affix might not be called grammatical? I am afraid I have not spent much time thinking about this matter.

  22. Stefan Holm says:

    Marie Lucie: …a separate word not an affix might not be called grammatical?.

    I think it should, since they have similar grammatical functions. Also, if a language developes from a synthetic to an analytic one (like English) it would need more separate words. And the other way around: developing into being synthetic (or agglutinative) often means that separate functional words melt together as affixes with main words (and may disappear as stand alone words).

    So are the final definite markers (-et, -en) in Swedish: huset, the house, or dagen, the day, originally pronouns. In the old days they were ‘hus itt’ and ‘dag inn’ respectively (none of the pronouns has survived). The function however, now and then, is exactly the same.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    LH, thanks for linking to STRIDDEN. It was great fun to reread it!

    Seconded!

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  1. […] Hat links to an article tracing efforts to preserve the Californian language of Wukchumni via its last […]

  2. […] OLAC Language Resource Catalog: Wukchumni language The New York Times: Who Speaks Wukchumni? Languagehat: Who Speaks Wukchumni? Updates, Live: Wukchumni Language (Marie’s […]

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