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Juneau linguist keeping Native languages alive

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By Amy Fletcher
Juneau, Alaska (AP) May 2010

Edwards, far left with language
Courtesy of
Goldbelt Heritage Foundation.

Verb conjugation may seem to some a rather dry activity, but for local linguist Keri Edwards, it’s a process full of personal interaction and cross-cultural connections – as well as one that may help to forestall the destructive effects of time and shifting demographics on Alaska Native languages.

For the past five years, Edwards has been working on a database of Tlingit verbs and their conjugations with help from elders across Southeast in an effort to keep the language alive and active in the minds and mouths of younger speakers. The process has included her own immersion in learning the language.

“Someone made a comment in class recently,” she said. “They said, ‘Studying Tlingit will change your life,’ and I have to agree with that. It’s just a whole different way of looking at the world.”

Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer started the verb database project in the 1990s and passed it on to Edwards in 2005. The project has been undertaken through the Goldbelt Heritage Foundation and Sealaska Heritage Institute, with funding help from the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Administration for Native Americans.

The database now contains about 575 verbs and their conjugations, a number Edwards called “a good start.”

“It’s definitely not a complete list,” she said. “It has a long way to go to cover all the verb stems.” This spring, Edwards also has been leading a University of Alaska Southeast course on verbs geared toward educators of all levels. The course, offered at the Bill Ray Center downtown, offers teachers concrete tools for helping students grasp Tlingit verb forms, and includes a conversational aspect that engages Tlingit elders in the teaching process. The class continues in May.

Elders who have been involved in Edwards’ class include Fred White, of Yakutat, one of Tlingit’s youngest fluent speakers, Florence Marks Sheakley, of Juneau, who is Nora Dauenhauer’s sister, and Ruth Demmert, of Kake.

Elders from other Southeast communities also frequently call in to participate, she said, including those from Sitka, Hoonah Klukwan, Wrangell, Yakutat and Kake.

The class also helps teachers learn to use the verb database.

Though Tlingit verbs have been catalogued by other linguists, most notably by Constance Naish and Gillian Story, there was no good resource for the verbs in their conjugated forms, Edwards said, making it difficult for educators to teach them to classes in the absence of a fluent speaker.

“There’s just not any resource out there that covers the most critical information about the Tlingit verbs,” she said.

In compiling the list for the database, Edwards has focused on verbs that were the most common or useful.

“I had regular weekly meetings here in Juneau with local speakers and would have the list of verbs I wanted to collect for that day,” she said.

Regular language consultants included Lillian Austin, Irene Cadiente, George Davis, Anna Katzeek, David Katzeek, Anita Lafferty, John Marks, June Pegues and Helen Sarabia.

“The first couple hundred verbs were ‘eat,’ ‘drink,’ ‘talk,’ ‘dance,’ ‘sing’ - verbs that were relevant to the culture and to everyday life, and we went from there.”


In addition to the input from Tlingit elders and the Dauenhauers, Edwards said she has had invaluable help from other sources, including the Jeff Leer, of Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks, Dionne Cadiente-Laiti and Edward Hotch, from Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, and Donald Gregory, of Sealaska Heritage Institute.

During the UAS class, Edwards said she has seen a committed group of younger speakers dedicate themselves to improving their Tlingit language skills, in spite of the difficulties inherent in the process. Tlingit is a complex language to learn and to teach, she said, in part because of the unfamiliar sounds.

“The learning curve is very steep, mostly because the sound system is so complex,” she said. “That is the first barrier you have to break through - you have to be able to hear the sounds that are coming at you and distinguish between them.”

Another barrier is the unique structure of the language, the verbs in particular.

“There’s no such thing as a regular verb in Tlingit,” she said. “There’s patterns, but there’s nothing close enough to call it regular.”

Prefixes added on to verb roots can change the tone or tense of the verb and often contract to make other prefixes, she said. Because of this, the verb database is arranged alphabetically by verb root, as that is where the meaning of the verb is contained, rather than alphabetically by prefix.

Edwards, who grew up in Haines, said she first became interested in Tlingit language study while an undergraduate in linguistics at UAF working under Tlingit elder Bessie Cooley, the language consultant for her field linguistics course.

Edwards continued her linguistics work at the University of Oregon, graduating with a masters in 2003. She said she knew of the Dauenhauer’s work in Juneau and contacted them after she graduated to see if she could get involved. After getting to know Edwards, the couple handed the verb database project over to her.

Edwards, who is white, said her affiliation with the couple has helped her to build trust in the Tlingit community.

“For the most part, people are very supportive and patient,” she said.

Learning to speak Tlingit is for her an ongoing and enjoyable process.

“I understand a lot of what I hear, and I’m able to write down anything that’s said,” she said. “But in terms of busting out with conversational Tlingit, it’s pretty minimal. I can talk about the basics but I can’t wax poetic about anything.”

Even though she’s not there yet, waxing poetic is one of the things Tlingit is apparently well-suited to: Edwards said she finds the language to be very descriptive, full of humor and detail.

“Things just don’t translate that nicely from Tlingit to English,” she said. “You can never quite do it justice.”

Most language resources put the number of fluent Tlingit speakers between 200 and 400, but Edwards said she thinks its probably closer to 150.