The Athabaskan Languages: Perspectives on a Native American Language Family

The Athabaskan Languages: Perspectives on a Native American Language Family

The Athabaskan Languages: Perspectives on a Native American Language Family

The Athabaskan Languages: Perspectives on a Native American Language Family

Synopsis

The Native American language family called Athabaskan has received increasing attention from linguists and educators. The linguistic chapters in this volume focus on syntax and semantics, but also involve morphology, phonology, and historical linguistics. Included is a discussion of whether religion and secular issues can be separated in Navajo classrooms.

Excerpt

Theodore B. Fernald and Paul R. Platero

The Athabaskan language family stretches from Alaska through northwestern Canada and also appears in the American Southwest and in isolated regions of Washington, Oregon, and California. Navajo is currently the most widely used with somewhere between 90,000 and 150,000 speakers. The reason for the high margin of error in the estimated number of speakers is easily imagined by people who are familiar with what happens with endangered languages. In the case of Navajo, it is difficult to decide whom to count as a Navajo speaker: many people spoke it fluently when they were children but no longer do. They may understand some Navajo when they hear it, but they may no longer attempt to speak the language themselves. The other Athabaskan languages are numerically far worse off than Navajo and are very unlikely to survive the coming century.

The chapters in this volume range from technical analyses of the grammars of these languages to issues involved in trying to preserve Navajo. They were all presented at, or are closely related to, the Athabaskan Conference on Syntax and Semantics held at Swarthmore College (Pennsylvania) from April 25 to 28, 1996. Most of the essays in this collection are technical works of scholarship, making a contribution to the ongoing effort to understand human language in general and the Athabaskan languages in particular. These articles represent the current state of the art, and it would be very difficult for people with no background in linguistics to make sense of them. The volume contains two nontechnical essays that might appeal to a wider audience. The first is this introduction, which will describe in some detail what the conference at Swarthmore was all about. It will conclude with a brief overview of the other chapters in this volume. The second nontechnical essay is a summary of a discussion of the interaction of sacred and secular aspects of Navajo culture and its effects on efforts to use the Navajo language in public education. This discussion took place at the Swarthmore conference. The nontechnical essays are presented in this volume alongside the theoretical chapters for two main reasons. One is that including them provides a reflection of the conference at which they were presented. The . . .

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