December 23, 2007

Notes on California languages

Long gone Native languages emerge from the grave

Millions of cryptic notes from linguist John Peabody HarringtonBringing voices from the grave, volunteers at the University of California-Davis are working to decipher nearly a million pages of notes from conversations with long-gone Native Californians, reviving more than 100 languages from the distant past.

Word by word, they type the scribbled and cryptic notes left by John Peabody Harrington, an eccentric and tireless linguist who in the early 1900s traveled throughout California interviewing the last surviving speakers of many native tongues, including the local Muwekma Ohlone tribe.

Their effort to organize a database of Harrington's vast material will build a Rosetta Stone for these languages and their dialects, creating dictionaries of words, phrases and tribal tales and customs that were destined to disappear.

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