Saving speech



In its long history, the University of Nevada, Reno, has never given instruction in the local language. But that is changing. Northern Paiute is now a listed language in the language department.

“For years I was asking, ‘What do I need to do to get this class started?’ … Every time enrollment came around, I would ask,” said Christina Thomas, who grew up on the Pyramid Lake Reservation.

She never really encountered objections at UNR and, in fact, found considerable support, but it takes time to mount a new course of study. Now that she has succeeded after four years of effort, Thomas won’t be at UNR to take the class herself. She has just graduated and is going away to graduate school.

“I’m proficient, but I’m not fluent,” she said.

The course will be taught by a tribal elder. There has been some interest from people in other states who asked if the instruction can be taken online.

During a special census of the Pyramid Lake Reservation in 1997, within that single community there were found to be 60-plus fluent speakers of Northern Paiute, and, at the time, it was predicted that—given the age of the speakers—in 20 years the language would be extinct. Among all Paiutes, the pictures is similar.

“In 2008, there was a study that was conducted, and, in that time, there was estimated less than 700 fluent speakers—and those people were over the age of 65,” Thomas said. “And that was in 2008, so I would estimate that there is probably less than half of that. In our area, we’re getting down into the very few numbers of people that can speak fluently. Because they are over the age of 65, a lot of these people are elders and they’re passing. And we’re still trying to get our language, as best we can, written down because it was orally handed down, so we don’t have a ton of materials. So that’s why we’re kind of in the predicament that we’re in, trying to create and record elders as best we can because they’re passing away before we can get everything documented.”

For a language that once had no written form, there may now be an embarrassment of riches. Long established Wycliffe Bible Translators, which produced a Northern Paiute New Testament, Te Naa Besa Unnepu, developed a written Northern Paiute form that is used in a Reno Sparks Indian Colony language program, a great asset at the time it was created. But the Wycliffe system tends to conflict in its vowels with a system used in the Northern Paiute–Bannock Dictionary compiled by three University of Nevada, Reno scholars and published by the University of Utah. Further, Thomas believes the International Phonetic Alphabet would be preferable, because its form makes clear how a language is spoken.

“We need to pull away from [other systems] and … learn to write IPA because that will always make the same sound no matter,” she said. “If a linguist read it, he would be able to read it correctly. … The tribes and people are trying to take one writing system that’s consistent so that, in the future, someone wouldn’t pick it up and not know how to read it.”