Posted on Friday, August 6, 2010
Category: Languages, Saving Languages
With an ever-decreasing number of native speakers, the Shoshone language is in danger of joining the ranks of extinct languages that have disappeared from the planet in the past 100 years.
Shoshone is a native language of the Shoshone (sometimes known as Shoshoni) peoples, a North American Indian group. The number of Shoshone has decreased significantly over the past century and today there are only an estimated 3,000 Shoshone language speakers in existence.
Understandably, fears have arisen that Shoshone, a Central Numic language belonging to the Uto-Aztecan family, may die out completely in the future. This has prompted new initiatives designed to document the language and to revitalize its use among young people.
Dwindling Number of Shoshone Language Speakers
The Shoshone originally occupied areas of the states now known as California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Traditionally the Shoshone were split into four primary groups, largely divided along geographic lines: the Western, Northern, Wind River and Comanche Shoshone. Although Shoshone dialects varied, they were similar enough to be mutually intelligible among all Shoshone language speakers, regardless of geographic origin.
In fact, Sacagawea, who acted as a guide for the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, was a Shoshone, thought to hail either from the Northern or Wind River group. As of the early 21st century, there were an estimated 41,000 Shoshone descendents in existence.
As most of the existing 3,000 Shoshone speakers left today are elderly, new movements aimed toward educating young people in the Shoshone language are being undertaken. The hope is that such endeavors will preserve the language and prevent Shoshone from becoming like even more severely endangered languages, such as Potawatomi, which has one known fluent speaker in existence, and Onge, which has less than 100 known speakers today.
Shoshone Youth Language Apprenticeship Program
The Shoshone Youth Language Apprenticeship Program (SYLAP) is one notable initiative working to preserve the Shoshone language among young people. Established by the University of Utah, the program offers students paid internships in linguistics and gives Shoshone high schoolers the opportunity to learn the language of their ancestors. Students participate in a six-week intensive program of Shoshone language courses while simultaneously working on language revitalization and documentation programs at the university’s Center for American Indian Languages (CAIL).
Throughout the program, a large focus is made on the integration of existing Shoshone elders, who are essential in such preservation and teaching projects. The 2010 program wrapped up in July, ending with presentations of CAIL projects such as a talking dictionary.
Shoshone Language in the Future
It’s difficult to tell how successful efforts in saving dying languages like Shoshone will be. Programs like the one at the University of Utah are undoubtedly a step forward, and there’s no doubt regarding the utility of documentation projects that preserve the language through the creation of recordings, dictionaries and grammars. Whether Shoshone will ever again regain a large well-established community of speakers is uncertain – but is this really the goal?
It may be unrealistic to expect a resurgence of Shoshone language speakers, but you could argue that the point, more than anything else, is to simply prevent the language from dying out completely. In this regard, projects like SYLAP and those led by the University of Utah’s CAIL institute are certainly helping to preserve the Shoshone language.