Arapaho, once a predominate language, is now spoken by merely 200 people in the country.
Professor Andrew Cowell, chair of CU’s Department of Linguistics, presides over the Arapaho Language Project with help from Irina Wagner, a third-year doctoral student at CU.
KGNU’s Danielle Seat reports that they are making an effort to document the language in order to preserve the culture that is represents.
Andrew Cowell started the Arapaho Language Project in 2002 and over the past 15 years he has built relationships with the Arapaho people and helped to inspire the people to learn the language and teach the language.
“I have been working with the Northern Arapaho tribe for about 15 years now… and been working to document the language and also help make effort to learn and teach”
“I first of all learned the language myself, and it was one of the more challenging things. You don’t always have to learn a language to work on it but I wanted to and I feel like that really helped me with the community in terms of gaining respect and trust”
Their immediate task right now is to produce a dictionary and an online data base but this is no easy task considering there was no previous written documentation of the language.
“It was difficult because there was no real dictionary and no grammar and no text book so I just had to go up to Wyoming and find people who spoke the language and start trying to learn some words and then I would recognize that there was ending on words and then I would say well what does that ending mean and often times people cant quite tell you and you keep asking question until you figure it out gradually learn to put two words together and then 3 and learn sentences and learn from there.”
Cowell has seen the language dwindling. The Indian Boarding Schools that were established to Americanize the Native American children, severely punished those children for speaking their native language. As a result of this cultural genocide, many indigenous languages are in danger of becoming extinct. Professor Cowell says he has seen a real dwindling of the Arapaho language in recent years. “When I first started going up there were probably 8-900 and now it’s probably down to 2-300 because the only people that speak the language are older people, the children don’t really speak it as a fluent language and of course the older people are passing away so a lot of the people I started working with are no longer around.”
But he says that his efforts are not so much to save the language, but rather to physically document the language to make it so others can learn if they want to.
“To save a language is really to make it so people can speak the language and use the language and I really cant do that. I’m a linguist but I’m not an Arapaho person and I can’t make those decisions for Arapaho people and I view what I am doing basically as an insurance policy so if they do want to learn to speak it they will have the basis to revive the language themselves if they want to.”
Irina Wagner is a graduate student in linguistics at University of Colorado Boulder. She has been helping Cowell with the Arapaho Language project since 2014. Wagner is a native Russian speaker and expresses concern for dying languages, specifically Native American languages.
“I am really concerned with the fact that so many languages are dying and the Native American languages are dying mainly because of the hegemonic practices of the US gov. A lot of the Native American languages were not allowed to be spoken for a long time so a lot of the people switch to English because there are just so many more opportunities that are associated with English rather than their own language.”
Wagner emphasizes how important the input from the community is in their work.
“we are trying to involve the community in telling us what they what to see, I think this is a very important part of the project is that we aren’t just putting grammar book on the internet and saying here’s the language learn from if but were actually saying what would you like to learn about the language? We have resources.”
She sees the language dwindling and see that there is a lack of access to information, specifically for parents of kids who want to learn Arapaho.
The Arapaho Language Project has created a website that is available for people to learn a little bit more about the language.