University of Rochester

Online Atlas Planned for Endangered Native Languages

April 21, 2010

University of Rochester linguist Joyce McDonough has been awarded a two-year, $201,670 National Science Foundation Polar Institute grant to develop an interactive online speech atlas of endangered native languages of the Mackenzie Basin, a vast and sparsely populated region of northwestern Canada.


Aerial view of the boreal forest in the Mackenie Basin of northwestern Canada.

"Heritage languages are under considerable socio-economic pressure from the English and French speaking overculture," explains McDonough. "Fewer and fewer native North Americans are becoming fluent in their heritage tongues, and those who are fluent or want to learn their languages face increasingly reduced opportunities to speak and learn in their tongue, a situation that undermines the stability of these communities and their cultural knowledge." The problem, McDonough adds, is worsened by the comparatively low level of linguistic documentation available on these languages.

"This web site," says McDonough, "can be a critical tool to those interested in preserving linguistic diversity and for helping communities hold on to their native languages before they vanish."

The Speech Atlas will focus on the sound systems of the area's Athabaskan, or as speakers prefer, Dene languages. It will be developed as an online site for sharing information, research, and educational resources between the academic institution and the indigenous communities, especially for those members who are interested in language documentation and revitalization.

The Speech Atlas's web site will provide geotagged links to the individual Dene speaking communities in the Mackenzie River drainage basin, with examples and descriptions of the sound phonemes for each community and with words demonstrating those sounds spoken by native speaker from that community. Words will be written using both the International Phonetic Alphabet and the orthography used in that community. Online sound files will allow users to listen to native speakers pronouncing the consonants and vowels sounds in words, and to experience the tone, intonation, rhythm, and meter of the speech of each language. The project will highlight both the striking similarity among the Dene languages in Canada and the distinct variations that have evolved in these typically small and isolated villages.

The information will be developed as overlays, permitting it to be associated with internet map systems such as Google Earth. This map-based approach is key, says McDonough, because it allows language documentation to be localized to a specific community, reflecting the way Dene see themselves. "The Dene strongly identify with their communities," explains McDonough; "a native from Cold Lake is not only a Dene Sųłiné, but a Cold Lake Dene Sųłiné."

The web site builds on the work of the Canadian Indigenous Language and Literacy Development Institute, which provides training for native speakers in linguistic methodology for language documentation and analysis. Working with Institute co-director Sally Rice, professor of linguistics from the University of Alberta, and a team of academic and native linguists, McDonough plans to initially feature about 10 Dene language communities, including Cold Lake; Fort Chipewyan, Alberta; Rae, N.W.T.; and Deline, N.W.T. She hopes the web site will encourage other Dene communities to embrace the technically challenging and time consuming work of documenting their languages.

The Dene languages, spoken from Alaska south to the Rio Grande, constitute the largest and most geographically widespread language family of native North America. The language family includes Navajo, which with 140,000 native speakers ranks as the most widely spoken indigenous language in the United States.