Linguists will tell you that a language can begin to die in a single generation—if it is not passed down to children.
Jack Martin, an authority on the native languages of the American South, has worked three summers in a row to prevent one language from meeting that particular fate. Koasati—which is spoken by the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana—is considered endangered in that only 200 or so of the 700 Coushatta are fluent. Martin, associate professor of English at William & Mary, is part of a multidisciplinary team that includes a colleague at McNeese State University, some William & Mary students and tribal members. Their goal is to document and archive the language, so that it can stay alive for future generations.
This past summer, there were three William & Mary students on Martin’s team, including linguistics major Chris Hart-Moynihan ’11; Joe Kessler ’10, who just started a Ph.D. program at the University of Buffalo; and Stephanie Hasselbacher-Berryhill, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology.
The team worked together—and on related individual projects—to integrate Koasati more fully into Coushatta society, especially among children. Tribal members were involved in every step of the process, Martin said, beginning with the alphabet.
First, Create an alphabet
“The first step in documenting and archiving a language is to study and understand its sounds, but there was no Koasati alphabet,” Martin said. “To help the tribe develop one, we drew on the regular English alphabet, but because they didn’t have any approved way to write the language, it was extremely helpful to have sister languages from the Muskogean family to draw from.”
He explained that in cases in which a Koasati phoneme didn’t have an exact English equivalent, the linguists would discuss with the Coushatta how the different related tribes spelled that particular sound. The Muskogean family of languages also includes Choctaw, Chickasaw, Alabama, Apalachee, Miccosukee and Creek. The language closest to Koasati linguistically is Alabama—which, ironically, is spoken in parts of Texas, Martin said.
He added that the tribal members resisted the incorporation of any characters outside A-Z into the Koasati alphabet: The Coushatta didn’t want strange, non-QWERTY, letters interfering with their ability to send text messages in their native tongue.
In addition to developing an alphabet, the team constructed an online “talking” dictionary, designed a website and helped with language camps for the Coushatta children. “The idea of a talking dictionary—which is organized by semantic category—is to have a lasting recording of as many words as we can get,” Martin explained.
During the first summer of the project, the students helped with the talking dictionary. The second summer was dedicated to website development and publishing books to develop literacy. On-demand self-publishing was key to the success of publishing books in an endangered language.
“Instead of submitting a manuscript to a publisher and waiting for it to be reviewed, we used a website called Lulu.com to send files to an online printer,” Martin said. “The printer then provides a link, and you advertise the link to people who want to order the book. You can also easily change the spelling of a word if you need to.”
Three children’s books were published in 2009, including one entitled First Words in Koasati. If the title sounds elementary, consider that there are no tribal schools. Coushatta children must travel outside of their community to attend a school that teaches two languages—English and French, still a principal language in Louisiana.
“Children have to be exposed to a language to learn it,” Martin points out. “But the Coushatta children are not being educated in their native language and school administrators have been very reluctant to allow Koasati in the classroom.”
Recipe for language death
As a result, the Coushatta community consists of diminishing numbers of older people who are fluent, followed by their adult children who understand the language but do not speak it—a sure way for a language to die. “Without being taught, the children are and will be monolingual English speakers who neither speak nor understand Koasati. To be fluent, full immersion in elementary school is essential,” Martin said.
The fact that the children are not learning their native language in school makes the language camps invaluable. Hart-Moynihan assisted with language documentation efforts and worked with Coushatta children at the language camp. He found them to be extremely social and willing participants.
“The sessions lasted an hour and a half with Koasati speakers, including tribal elders,” Hart-Moynihan said. “We started out learning basic words like the different colors and animals. The kids also played games like Koasati Twister to engage them with learning, while making it fun too. That was a remarkable success and very useful to me because I’m interested in seeing how these kinds of programs—which pass a language on—actually work.”
Hart-Moynihan plans to incorporate his work and research into an eventual honors thesis.
A talking dictionary
Ph.D. student Hasselbacher-Berryhill spent most of her time in Louisiana working on a Koasati dictionary.
“A fairly substantial dictionary had been published previously, but using an older writing system. I worked with fluent Koasati speakers, going through the dictionary entry by entry, updating the spellings to a newer orthography that is preferred by the Coushatta community and making corrections to the English translations if necessary,” Hasselbacher-Berryhill said.
She recorded their dictionary sessions for an eventual web-based “talking dictionary” with each entry linked to a sound file of a fluent speaker giving good pronunciations of Koasati words.
“I also helped out as I could with other projects, such as producing a Koasati phrase book for language learners,” she said. “I tried to learn a bit of Koasati, too.”
Much has been accomplished over three summers, yet much remains to be done—from transcribing additional texts to continuing interviews with Koasati speakers. Martin says it’s an ongoing project.
Hasselbacher-Berryhill will continue to be involved in the project. In September, she received support to continue her studies of Koasati and the Coushatta in the form of a $44,000 grant from the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project, a program of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, UK.
“We are training bilingual people to write down the stories in Koasati, then translate them into English and put them online. That could go on for years—documenting everything into an oral history,” Martin said. “And we want to continue with language revitalization—with more language camps and classes.”
Interesting linguistic issues
In addition to the language preservation efforts, there is plenty of opportunity for serious linguistic study. Martin is studying a set of phonology issues dealing with pitch contrasts in Koasati. It is fairly detailed work because changing the pitch of a word affects its meaning.
“All Koasati verbs are like that,” he said. “I can say a word in one pitch and it means one thing. I can say the same word in a different pitch and it means something else.”
“Right now I’m trying to figure out exactly how many patterns there are and what it is that I am hearing,” he said. “I’m basically trying to limit the chaos of what’s out there into certain patterns. Then I want to find a way to represent that and analyze it.”
He hopes to have another student group going to Louisiana next summer to help with dialect surveys, yet as he ponders the future, Martin reflects on the changing nature of linguistic fieldwork.
“I think it’s interesting to see how this type of work has changed in the last 20 years or so. When I first started out, the linguist would apply for funding and then hire native speakers to do scientific work,” Martin said. “Things have really shifted—at least in the south. Several tribes have casinos and so they have financial resources. They like to decide which linguists to work with and hire them as consultants. That way, the tribe has control over the research paradigm; they control the recordings and publish them if they want to.”
Martin is donating his time for the Koasati Language Project. His colleague at McNeese State University, Linda Langley, wrote the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant covering travel and other expenses.
Many Native American languages have managed to survive into the 21st century and the Coushatta are hard at work to keep Koasati alive. Indeed, a people’s history is passed down through its language, so if it languishes, so too will elements of the community’s identity.
“The tribe wants to keep Koasati alive and pass it on to the next generation. They do not want to just put the language in a bottle,” Martin said. He went on to explain that a partial solution is preferable to the total death of the language. “We might not be able to create a new generation of fluent speakers, but we should at least be able to get kids to learn a few hundred words. And knowing just 200 words can make a huge difference to their identity because it connects the Coushatta to the community—and it means that they can talk with their grandparents.”