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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 29, 2001 - Issue 52


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Reno Linguist Foremost Expert on Washoe Language

credits:Andy Barron/RGJ
William H. Jacobsen Jr.William H. Jacobsen Jr. remembers hearing the 6 p.m. whistle blow daily in Carson Valley.

It was the sound of segregation.

“When the whistle went off, the Indians had to get out of Minden and Gardnerville,” said Jacobsen, a retired University of Nevada, Reno professor, renowned linguist, author and pioneer in the study of tribal languages.

The whistle is gone. The Washoe tribe remains, and so does Jacobsen.

He is recognized as the foremost expert on the ancient and complex language of the Washoe tribe that has occupied Carson Valley and surrounding areas for thousands of years.

As a graduate student at the University of California in the 1950s, Jacobsen came to Carson Valley to learn Washoe, or Washo, the spelling most often used by linguists.

For centuries, Washoe had been a spoken language. Jacobsen learned to speak it fluently. It wasn’t written down. Jacobsen wrote it down.

“He’s responsible for the writing system we are using,” said Laura Fillmore, former director of the tribe’s language program. “He’s a brilliant linguist.”

Jacobsen, who retired from UNR’s English department in 1994, published a book, “Beginning Washo,” in 1996 based on his life’s work, which started when he wrote a 700-page dissertation on Washoe grammar.

“William Jacobsen has devoted four decades of research and scholarship to the analysis of the Washoe language and is recognized as its foremost linguistic expert,” Warren L. d’Azevedo, a former anthropology professor at UNR, said when the book was released.

“All recent students of Washoe culture are indebted to him for his generous guidance in accurate translation of terms and texts, and for his role in standardizing written Washoe.”

Jacobsen recalls the praise and smiles.

“I kind of fooled Azevedo,” Jacobsen said with a chuckle. “I’m not as good as he thinks I am.”

But Jacobsen, who came to Carson Valley when the road between Gardnerville and the Washoe community of Dresslerville was unpaved, doesn’t smile when he talks about the future of the tribe’s language.

It’s going to die, Jacobsen said.

He expects the Washoe language to be finally overwhelmed by English, the dominant language that surrounds it, in much the same way that tribal languages in California were.

“It’s hopeless,” said Jacobsen, who lives in Reno, still writing and lecturing on Washoe and other endangered tongues. “Languages are dying like flies all over the place.”

Older members of tribes speak the languages, Jacobsen said, but it’s difficult to teach them to children when they spend most of their time hearing and speaking English.

“In California there were 100 languages,” Jacobsen said. “Now, most are dying out.”

Spanish and white settlers, Jacobsen said, started the process of killing the native languages. Television, economics and popular culture, he said, are finishing the process.

Everything is done in English.

“Some kids want to,” Jacobsen said of learning tribal languages. “It gives them identity and uniqueness. Others don’t. They want to do what’s good for them economically.”

Jacobsen said when Fillmore surveyed the Washoe tribe several years ago, she found 65 members, mostly elders, who could speak the language. That number, Jacobsen said, has dropped to 30.

“It removes the incentive for the kids,” Jacobsen said.

They have fewer people to teach them or to talk to if they do learn.

But Fillmore hopes the trend can be reversed.

“I have taught a handful of elders literacy in their language,” she said of Washoe.

“I taught 50 students based on Jacobsen’s work. My hope now is that when these children come of age, they will become teachers.”

Despite the death sentences he pronounces on old languages, Jacobsen remains interested in them.

Along with Washoe, Jacobsen has written a book about the language of the Makah tribe that lives on the tip of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Jacobsen, who studied 12th century French and Spanish as an undergraduate at Harvard, has taught a class at UNR in Sanskrit, a language of India that dates to the fourth century B.C.

“All languages are difficult, whether they’re tribal or not,” said Jacobsen, who started with Spanish, then learned French and Latin in high school.

Sometimes, Jacobsen can’t remember all the languages he knows.

“I haven’t counted lately,” he said.

Speaking the language of the land
As the sun rose over Lake Tahoe, a line of children held hands and prayed to the lake in their native tongue, Washoe. The sunlight glowed on the water and splashed bright color on their faces where they stood looking out over the water.
Lannan Foundation Language Grants
Lannan has supported several local efforts toward the revitalization and preservation of Native languages. These projects are located throughout the United States, and involve a number of different languages including Blackfoot, Mohawk, Hawaiian, and Washo.

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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