The Cowlitz language is brought back with an online dictionary and weekend lessons | national news
It has been nearly 50 years since the Cowlitz Coast Salish language became extinct. The Cowlitz Indian Tribe is working to revive it and so far it is having success.
The tribe launched the first major set of results from a three-year partnership with The Language Conservancy at an event on February 12. The tribe announced an alphabet primer and two picture books to introduce the language to Cowlitz children and an online and mobile dictionary with more than 3,000 words. Weekend classes for adults interested in the language have been running for several months.
The new uses are all the more impressive considering how far the language had fallen into disuse. Language Conservancy experts had to rely on taped interviews from the 1960s to get an idea of what Cowlitz was supposed to sound like. It was the first time the Language Conservancy had to completely reconstruct a language without the help of a living fluent speaker.
Excerpts from these original recordings are broadcast in the online dictionary as examples of pronunciations to listen to.
“You can click on a word and hear how to pronounce it from the voices of our late elder. It’s so amazing and it really brings out the ability to bring the language back to life,” said Rita Asgeirsson, Cowlitz Indian Tribe Cultural Resource Manager.
Language preservation is a nonprofit organization that works to revitalize the use of Indigenous languages that have disappeared or are at risk of becoming extinct. Conservation works with dozens of tribes in the United States, Canada and Australia to preserve traditional ways of speaking.
Conservancy President Wil Meya said all the work that has been done so far will hopefully lay the groundwork for producing new, competent speakers in younger generations.
“As people learn that this language is learnable and doable, they will gain more experience, become more advanced and put in more effort. But of course the resources have to be there first,” said Meya said.
The Loss of the Cowlitz Coast Salish
Cowlitz Coast Salish is far from the only Native American language that has withered or died.
According to the Endangered Languages Project, only half of the languages spoken in the United States before Europeans arrived still exist. Many of those who are still there are in danger of disappearing.
The last major work done to preserve the Coast Salish people of Cowlitz was done by Mr. Dale Kinkade, a Washington-born University of Kansas linguist specializing in the study of Salish languages. In the 1960s, Kinkade interviewed two of the remaining members of the Cowlitz tribe who were fluent in the language, Emma Mesplie and Lucy James.
Asgeirsson said after the tribe gained federal recognition and established the reservation in Clark County, they began looking for the next set of priorities.
“Language has emerged as one of those most important aspects of our history that impacts all aspects of Cowlitz culture,” Asgeirsson said.
These recordings formed the basis of Kinkade’s “Cowlitz Dictionary and Grammatical Sketch” published in 2004 and work done by the Language Conservancy. An International Journal of American Linguistics article on Kinkade’s dictionary stated that his work “represents the sum total of our knowledge of Cowlitz”.
Meya said experts scoured nearly 100 hours of tape to build the current dictionary and books and preserved audio clips for around 2,000 individual words and a range of phrases and sentences.
The Salish group of Native American languages can be notoriously difficult to learn. The Cowlitz alphabet has 42 letters, several of which, according to Asgeirsson, take “a lot of movement in the mouth and throat”. Cowlitz has different pronunciations for the letters c (sounds like the ‘ts’ in cats, according to the Cowlitz online dictionary) and c’ (the same sound but with a high-pitched pop).
Tribal chiefs also grapple with the question of how to adapt the language to 2022. Meya said that creating new words or adapting now-common English terms was a particularly difficult development for languages that didn’t have not been actively used for generations.
“There are tens of thousands of new words that need to be invented for the things you want to talk about in a modern context,” Meya said.
Helping Tribal Members Become “Culturally Coherent”
The Cowlitz Indian Tribe takes several approaches to recommissioning the Cowlitz Coast Salish.
Alphabet books and early reading books are part of the Cowlitz curriculum focused on educating children with language familiarity. In addition to the current two books, Asgeirsson said the tribe plans to eventually build a library of 100 children’s books that will be provided through the tribe’s daycare centers and Head Start programs.
“Language provides cultural instruction, morals, ethics, values,” Asgeirsson said. “So the earlier you start with the kids, the more culturally consistent a person can be raised.”
For older members, the Cowlitz Tribe has been hosting a series of virtual language-learning weekends for the past two months. They work Saturdays and Sundays to practice speaking Cowlitz Coast Salish, using the Language Conservancy’s work as a baseline.
Asgeirsson said after the first set of classes, there were about 25 people who showed a significant affinity for Coast Salish people and had time to focus on learning them. These learners were placed on an advanced path to becoming the first group of proficient Cowlitz speakers. The initial cohort of speakers will help teach the language to other tribe members and help create video lessons and new recordings for the dictionary.
Written and spoken language can also enter classrooms in Southwest Washington. The state’s “From Time Immemorial” program requires lessons in the history of Washington’s Native American tribes with significant input from area tribes. The Cowlitz Indian Tribe works with 24 school districts to teach local tribal history, including their original names and descriptions of land features.
“What’s really important is making sure we standardize seeing the written language, seeing the images and the history of the tribe,” Asgeirsson said.