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The Tunica Language Revitalization Project: Methods, challenges, and data conflict in language recreation

By Raina Heaton


Tunica, an indigenous language of central Louisiana, died in the 1940’s with its last speaker, Sesostrie Youchigant. In 2010 the Tunica Tribe came to Tulane Linguistics asking for help reviving their language, and thus far we have created a practical orthography, produced two books of stories, written several prayers, and created basic lesson plans which are beginning to be taught to tribal children. We are currently writing a pedagogical grammar, a linguistic grammar, a new dictionary, and intermediate and advanced lessons. The most complete record of the language lies in a grammar, dictionary, and book of 22 myths published by Mary Haas from working with Sesostrie. Through the materials available we have tried to recreate the language faithfully, while keeping in mind that the new generation of Tunica speakers will be coming to L2 through English. But there are still many difficult choices to be made. Haas has been our authority, but it became apparent that because her data were limited to the recollections of a single semi-speaker and the few narrative texts he was able to produce, supplemental information would be required to continue with the lessons and the grammars. One of our members recently visited the National Anthropological Archives and photographed a 259 page handwritten manuscript of Tunica vocabulary, grammatical paradigms, and interlinearlized texts written by Gatschet ca. 1886 and later revised by Swanton. These data are particularly important in that they are not narrative in origin, but are elicited phrases and paradigms. Not only do you find useful day-to-day phrases but also examples of constructions which Haas lacked. However, Gatschet’s orthographical conventions are not explained, word vs. morpheme boundaries are inconsistent, and we have no way of checking the accuracy of anything unattested in Haas. Worse yet, Gatschet and Swanton often disagree about both definition and form, and many of the forms contradict Haas. This paper discusses both the practical and ethical issues that arise from attempting to revive a language when faced with insufficient and conflicting data. Many of the large decisions regarding language planning belong to the tribe, but even the small decisions have the potential to have huge effects on the future of Tunica. Focus is mainly given to verb formation processes and what semantic and pragmatic information can be gleaned from the Gatschet-Swanton materials, then applied to paint a more complete picture of the Tunica verbal system in all of its polysynthetic complexity

Year: 2013
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