Abenaki speaker on keeping languages alive

Addie Beach, Senior Staff Writer

When a language goes extinct, a rich history may follow suit.

 Language instructor Jesse Bruchac visited UVM Jan. 21 to discuss language preservation efforts in the indigenous Abenaki community.

Bruchac is an Abenaki citizen and teaches Abenaki language through storytelling and music, according to his website.

The talk was organized by the UVM Linguistics Club.

Senior Shannon Foley, president of the Linguistics Club, said she believed the talk could demonstrate how important language is to many communities.

“A lot of people say that language is a form of culture,” she said. “I think it’s very interconnected, at least.”

Foley said the Linguistics Club aims to promote the scientific study of language through talks, regular meetings and career  resources.

Half of the world’s over 5000 languages are in the danger of going extinct in the next century, potentially damaging many communities’ cultural identities, according to the Linguistics Society of America’s website.

Language preservation and revitalization, which use teaching and documentation to keep a language spoken, can be key to preventing this, the website states.

Much of Bruchac’s talk emphasized this, with the instructor saying that learning another language is learning a community’s worldview.

For Bruchac, language revitalization doesn’t stop at knowing the words in a language but understanding their context and significance as well, he said.

He used the Abenaki word for “thanks” as an example, explaining that it encompasses the idea of a circle of giving, with everyone contributing without the expectation of reward.

For threatened cultures, such as many indigenous groups, this type of preservation is especially crucial, said Foley.

“I can see how important it is to those communities that have been colonized or oppressed historically,” Foley said.

Senior Emma Roach, who attended the talk, also mentioned the significance of revitalization.

“I think it’s important that we work towards [preservation] so we don’t lose any more languages,” Roach said.

Bruchac mixed his discussion of preservation with brief lessons on the language itself, often working these into songs and storytelling.

“Stories are the way we make it through life,” he said, while recounting traditional Abenaki folktales in their native language.

Bruchac’s work is part of a long history of indigenous language documentation.

He discussed Abenaki authors such as Pial Pol Wz8khilain, a Dartmouth-educated scholar who published a book on the language in the 1830s.

“Books like this break a lot of stereotypes,” Bruchac said, adding that Wz8khilain both self-published his work and built the printing press it was copied on.

There are still authors who continue these efforts to this day – Bruchac’s own father has published a number of works on Abenaki, he said.

“It’s not a new tradition for Abenaki people to be prolific,” Bruchac said.

Bruchac himself learned native from Abenaki speakers and is trying to pass this knowledge along to his children, he said.

Bruchac also wants to adapt traditional teaching strategies to a more modern audience.

In addition to leading lectures and classes, he uses social media and online videos to teach Abenaki.

“I’ve embraced not just going out and teaching the language,” Bruchac said. “But also embracing every form of technology to do it.”

In addition to raising awareness about Abenaki, Foley also organized the talk so students could learn more about language preservation as a potential career path, as job resources for linguistics students can be limited, she said.

Roach found this helpful.

“I think it’s really cool to hear from people who work in the linguistics world,” she said, adding that she wants to hear from more linguist speakers in the future.

Foley said the Linguistics Club hopes to do this with a talk from professor and Irish linguist Aidan Doyle organized for the spring, and mentioned that non-linguists are welcome to attend.