As part of my MA in Indigenous Studies, I wrote a manual entitled “A Crash Course in Linguistics for Language Revitalizationists”.

This work introduces linguistic concepts and analytical tools that can offer critical support to language revitalization efforts, which are of increasing importance in Indigenous communities worldwide.  The overall theme is that languages are full of complexity which many of us have never thought about before embarking on revitalization efforts. That complexity can be broken down into manageable pieces, but doing so requires a mastery of basic linguistic techniques.  This manual contributes to language revitalization efforts by presenting these techniques in a user-friendly way, drawing almost exclusively on examples from Indigenous North American languages.

The first chapter contains a discussion of language in general: What is language? What do we know when we know a language? How can we investigate a speaker’s knowledge?  Addressing these questions highlights the complexity, value, and communicative capacity of all languages, driving home the point that revitalized languages can be put to use in all areas of human activity—not only in the home but also in the spheres of education, business, politics, entertainment, and every other domain in which we communicate. It also sets the stage for the areas that need to be considered when beginning revitalization work.

The next chapter deals with phonetics, the study of speech sounds.  In this chapter, readers are introduced to the human vocal tract and learn how it is used to make various speech sounds.  The International Phonetic Alphabet, which can be used to transcribe speech from any language, is also presented.  Developing an understanding of how to listen for and describe speech sounds is critical to revitalization work, particularly when dealing with languages that utilize very different sound systems than that of your first language, and learning the IPA ensures that revitalizationists will be able to make written records which accurately reflect spoken sounds.  While the creation of written materials may not be desired in every revitalization effort, it will almost always come into play if the creation of grammatical or educational materials is a goal.

Chapter Three investigates phonology, which is the study of speech sound patterns within specific languages.  After a discussion of basic phonological concepts, practice problems are used to explore problem-solving techniques.  Learning how to observe the ways in which sounds may change systematically within a language further enhances the perceptiveness with which revitalizationists can approach their task, and supports the creation of accurate language notes and educational materials.

Chapter Four provides an overview of morphology, which is the study of words and word structure; examples are used to illustrate the different types of words we find in the world’s languages as well as the various word-building techniques that are utilized.  Again, problem sets are used to give readers the chance to practice the problem-solving techniques introduced in the chapter.  Languages build words in many different ways, but utilize similar pieces and patterns; this chapter supports revitalization efforts by providing the reader with an overview of some of the patterns and pieces they may expect to come across in their own language work.  Morphological analysis is of particular use to those involved in revitalization efforts for indigenous North American languages, which typically display very complex morphology.

The fifth and final chapter addresses syntax, which looks at the structure of phrases and sentences.  The chapter outlines some of the rules and patterns we use to build sentences, and describes some crosslinguistic structural similarities.  In gaining a sense of the ways in which different words can be combined to form larger units of structure, revitalizationists become better equipped to analyze and describe the structures they find in their own language work.   

Upon completion of this manual, readers will have gained both basic linguistic knowledge and functional problem solving techniques.  These new skills are relevant to all manners of revitalization work: people learning endangered languages will be able to approach the task with a greater overall awareness of language, and will be better equipped to analyze specific aspects of the language which may present learning challenges.  Revitalization efforts with a focus on the creation of a grammar and/or educational materials are also supported, as the topics outlined above—phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax—are crucial components in any such materials.

I am happy to share the 200-page document with anyone involved in language work. Send requests to kberkson@indiana.edu. A line or two outlining your interest in the piece or the community/-ies you work with would be greatly appreciated, but is not necessary.