Classroom of University of Utah students.

Classroom of University of Utah students.

University of Utah Shifts Focus to Tribal Languages, Some Fear World Indigenous Languages Will Be Left Behind

At the end of August, the University of Utah announced that the Center for American Indian Languages (CAIL) would be dissolved into the American West Center (AWC) and that CAIL’s Native American language training and study programs would be moving to the Language Center in the College of Humanities.

“This restructuring will allow us to focus more effectively on our unwavering commitment to the Utah tribes, eliminating duplication while enhancing our current projects and developing new ones,” said Robert Newman, Dean of the College of Humanities, in a university release. “Merging existent programs from within CAIL combined with the solid leadership we have in the American West and Language Centers is clearly the most efficient way to accomplish these goals.”

Not everyone sees this as a positive step though, including Jeff Pynes, a Ph.D. student whose work focuses on the Tolupan of Central America, and Ives Goddard, a senior linguist with the Smithsonian Institution.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) endangered languages website, half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken today will be gone by the end of the century if nothing is done to save them. UNESCO lists 191 endangered languages in the United States alone.

Goddard told The Salt Lake Tribune that focusing on Uto-Aztecan, the language family associated with Utah’s tribes, could undermine the university’s credibility.

“It’s not just about rescuing some cute little language,” Goddard added. “It’s learning about human intellectual capacity in general. The goal is to find the universal hard-wired blueprint for language everyone is born with.”

Goddard is friends with Lyle Campbell, an expert in endangered languages of the Americas who helped establish CAIL in 2004. Campbell left Utah in 2010 to join the faculty of the University of Hawaii.

Campbell attributes the failure of CAIL to a lack of support from the university’s linguistics department, which made no faculty hires other than Campbell and Marianna Di Paolo, a language preservation faculty member. Not even after Mauricio Mixco, an American Indian language specialist, retired was a replacement hired. And fewer graduate students interested in language documentation were admitted.

“I was working so hard my health was suffering,” Campbell told The Salt Lake Tribune. That’s when he chose to head to Hawaii.

Newman, a supporter of CAIL, found it difficult to justify maintaining the research revolving around Campbell’s work after he left.

DiPaolo is a tenured professor, so her job will not be in jeopardy. Pynes plans to continue research on Ninam, a language spoken by Yanomaman tribes in the Amazon, Campbell was working on before he left, but his heart is really with the Tol language. The changes at the university have made him uncertain of his future as a language preservationist.

“It’s not just a labor of love. It’s a real dedication, above and beyond any day job,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I’m not certain if academia will be an option. I have to make sure I can find a job, otherwise I won’t be doing anyone a favor.”


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University of Utah Shifts Focus to Tribal Languages, Some Fear World Indigenous Languages Will Be Left Behind