Native tongue

Learn the language of the original inhabitants of this region

Herman Fillmore and Michelle Dressler

Herman Fillmore and Michelle Dressler

Photo/Kent Irwin

There are fewer than 10 native speakers of the Washo language left on Earth. If one speaker were to die tomorrow, the impact on the language would be approximately the equivalent of 100 million Spanish speakers dying at once, or 20 million German speakers. Words that were spoken for millennia in this part of the world are at risk of vanishing, their pronunciation and use incomprehensible to generations that will continue to live and use this land.

The name of the language has been spelled many different ways over the years. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use the one that has historically been the most common, Washo. We’re using the more familiar spelling, Washoe, to indicate the tribe’s name because that’s the tribe’s preference. You can learn how to speak Washo. Classes are held in Reno, Carson City, Gardnerville and Alpine County, Monday through Friday. According to Michelle Dressler, adult attendance has been waning.

“We’re at a critical point,” said Dressler. “We were one of the last tribes to get contacted. A lot was lost in a short amount of time.”

From the Sierra Nevada crest in the West, to the first range east of the Sierra Nevada, the Washo language has been spoken since the Neolithic period. General consensus points to 6,000 years of residence in this region, predating the Paiutes and Shoshones.

For scale, European settlements have been here nearly 150 years; less than 3 percent of the time that the Washoe have been building their language and culture around this area.

Dressler and Herman Fillmore run the Washo Language Class in Dresslerville, an Indian Colony five miles south of Gardnerville. The room is decorated with colorful drawings, pictures of local flora and fauna. It looks like any elementary school classroom. The bright construction paper is just as helpful to beginning adult learners as it is to young children.

If you give him the chance, Fillmore will take you on the journey of the Washo language without any hesitation. Part of the mood in his class is an urgency to get the language out into the world, but the other is a genuine love of his culture and a desire to share it. In spite of the grim outlook for the language, the lessons are very lighthearted and fun.

Despite being two of the preeminent teachers of Washo, Dressler and Fillmore consider themselves learners, rather than fluent speakers. They agree that language and culture are inexorably bound. If one were to go extinct, the other would follow. To them, Washo culture without the native language would just be a charade, a Native American variety show. Contained within the words of the tribe are not just traditional activities, but key concepts in their cultural outlook.

To Fillmore, the entire attitude of how his people treat one another is contained within the language. He explains that the tribe has nothing of the Western concept of “please” and “thank you.” There are only commands, no requests. Once someone has fulfilled the demand, the customary response doesn’t include any degree of gratitude. It’s merely stated that the helper has done his or her duty—what’s expected.

“The respect is implied,” said Fillmore. “We don’t express gratitude because, if you did it for me, then it must mean that you respect me. We let the actions speak instead of the words.”

Additionally, words for emotional attachment to people are sparse, relying on demonstration rather than explanation. The Washo word galam, which means “to want,” can be modified with suffixes and prefixes, until it becomes mi-galamšemuyi: “the one I prefer the most.”

“This is the closest word we have to ’love,’ because we believe love is shown, not spoken,” Fillmore explained.

Many words for human body parts also double as parts of the natural world. The word di maš means “my face,” but a form of the word that includes a brief pause (di ma-š) denotes the “pine-nut land” where sustenance was gathered. Within this slight distinction lies the implication that one should treat the environment the way one would treat one’s own face.

Washo has countless ways of describing the human body as a microcosm of the natural world. Children are taught their body parts as parts of the tree—arms as branches, clothes as bark. The word for “cheek” also describes the berries of the Pinyon Pine, Nevada’s state tree.

On the record

The late anthropologist Warren d’Azevedo detailed much of the Washoe relationship to the land while working as a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. At the time, there was a limited scope of documentation of the language. An early written representation of Washo came from Roma James in the 1920s, in the form of a journal of stories that detailed the tribe’s way of life. There was no written form of the language at the time, so he mostly adapted the International Phonetic Alphabet to suit his purpose.

It was d’Azevedo’s primary goal to capture sound bites of the language. It wasn’t until UNR linguistics professor William Jacobson Jr. encountered the Washoe that an official tribal alphabet and grammar was devised, which is still used today.

Despite the revitalization efforts, untold swaths of words and stories are lost to history. Dressler states that even now, tribal elders encounter unfamiliar words and phrases while listening to d’Azevedo’s recordings, as well as others made as recently as the 1950s.

Dressler and Fillmore grew up in a full immersion program that allowed them a degree of fluency. They teach tribal children, as well as others from nearby Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School who venture there during lunch break.

Dressler says they get some backlash from tribal youth, who want to speak English like their peers. Some know the words, but are too shy to use them. Attempts have been made to introduce a Washo language program into Washoe County schools, but, according to Fillmore, the papers tend to get lost in the governing system.

“I’m afraid that if I don’t teach it, no one will,” said Fillmore.

For now, the survival of the Washo language hangs by a thread. Its only hope is in finding willing learners. Yet Fillmore advises caution, after a few experiences with learners who ignored the cultural context in favor of their own image of the Washoe: women who want to give their children Washo names, or free-spirited types who want to play Indian and capture a minimum of the language in order to fulfill a misguided fantasy.

“If we only worry about preserving the language, then we risk losing the connection to the place and the worldview which Washo represents as a living language,” said Fillmore.

Fillmore and Dressler enthusiastically encourage anyone to come learn, while stressing that a respect for the culture and tradition should be acknowledged beforehand.

“Come and learn,” said Dressler. “Washo language is at the brink of extinction, and you have the opportunity to do something to help us strengthen our communities for the future.”