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The Rebirth of Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk

Submitted by on February 24, 2012 – 6:46 pm 2 Comments |  
The Hupa, Yurok, and  Karuk languages, discussed in yesterday’s post, are at the brink of extinction, like most other surviving indigenous languages of California. Most estimations of pre-contact times place the number of Hupa speakers at about 2,000*, but some scholars think that the figure could have been substantially higher. Today the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, claims that “there are fewer than a half-dozen first-language speakers of Hupa remaining”. The Ethnologue lists Hupa as having 8 speakers in 1998. The UNESCO list of endangered languages gives a more optimistic estimate of 12 speakers. The numbers of Karuk and Yurok speakers are similar: in pre-contact times, there may have been 1500 speakers of Karuk and 2500 speakers of Yurok; today, there are fewer than a dozen first-language speakers of each language remaining.

The ethnic groups themselves are considerably larger than the language communities. The Yurok tribe has roughly 5,000 registered members, making it the largest indigenous nation of California. The Hupa number almost 3,000 and the Karuk more than 3,500, which are relatively large numbers for California tribes. These figures represent a rebound from previous nadirs; in 1910, the Yurok numbered only about 700. But while the populations of these groups began to expand in the second half of the twentieth century, the indigenous languages continued to decline in favor of English.

With so few first-language speakers, can Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk be saved from extinction? Perhaps. The Hoopa Valley Tribe has supported language revitalization efforts since the 1970s and many people have developed a degree of second-language proficiency. Kayla Carpenter for one is optimistic about the program. My former student at Stanford, Kayla is now a 22-year-old graduate student at University of California Berkeley working on Hupa and Yurok. Of Hupa, Karuk and Yurok heritage herself, she hopes to help revitalize the dying languages of her people. Kayla’s optimism is fueled by the fact that “a younger generation has shown enthusiasm for learning the language”. Kayla herself learned Hupa and Yurok at the Hoopa Valley High School, which also teaches Karuk. Indigenous language instruction is a welcome change from past practices, when teachers at the Hoopa Valley boarding school punished children, including Kayla’s own great-grandmother, for speaking the native language, forcing them to scrub floors or confining them to the basement. Now, Kayla’s mother teaches the language at Hoopa Valley High, which makes Kayla the second generation of Hupa revivalists. She is probably the first to use a linguistics education to help the process. Her training helps her to explain to teachers how people acquire language and to connect elders’ speaking proficiency with grammar and pronunciation skills needed by Hupa learners. As part of this process, she has been working on an online Hupa dictionary.  This resource became available just last month, thanks to a collaborative effort of several graduate students at the Linguistics Department of University of California Berkeley and Verdena Parker, a native speaker. This Hupa project team is also compiling a multimedia corpus of annotated and analyzed texts from a variety of speech genres, which will include audio and video recordings. When complete, this body of information will serve as a foundational description of Hupa syntax in diverse spoken contexts. Similar work is also being conducted with Yurok: a Preliminary Yurok Dictionary, compiled in 2005, along with a text corpus of the language, already containing over 5000 sentences, are being constantly updated with additional new field data. Regular Yurok grammar workshops are also conducted during the academic year; and an annual summer Yurok Language Institute is sponsored by the Yurok Tribe.

For Kayla Carpenter and her peers, this work means two things: breathing new life into their ancestral tongues and adding to the roster of over 80 Berkeley Ph.D. dissertations on indigenous languages. But other Native American enthusiasts are approaching the language revitalization problem is a completely different way: by making a commitment to raise their children as native speakers. Elly and Phil Albers are both Karuk, but when Elly conceived their first child, they were not fluent in their ancestral language. Elly grew up with a Karuk father and a non-Karuk mother. Though they were not native speakers of the language, Elly’s parents raised Elly, her twin sister and her brother with as much Karuk tradition and language as possible. They even translated Sesame Street books into Karuk. Elly’s husband Phil had grown up in Yreka with a Karuk father and Choctaw mother. As a child, he carried around a Karuk phrase book and pestered the old folks for words. When he was 19, he and another tribal member studied together, poring over the technical Karuk language book written by the tribe’s official linguist, Bill Bright, in the 1950s. Still, he was far from being fluent in the language. Elly and Phil’s home-immersion plan has met many challenges: their own inadequacies with the language, English surround-sound everywhere they went, and few Karuk-speaking peers for their kids to practice with. But they – and other members of the Karuk tribe – persevere, learning from such success stories as the revitalization of Hawaiian, which has gone from having just 50 fluent speakers 20 years ago to as many as 27,000 today.



* Including Chilula and Whilkut, usually considered dialects of Hupa.


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  • Olga K

    They can definitely find inspiration in the story of Modern Hebrew.

  • Tim Upham

    A story in Hupa goes:

    Xantehitaw ch’iqal.
    Da:ywho’ xontah ne:s sa’an.
    Kehitsan xosing xa’k'iwhe inyektaw.
    Xontak ch’ing xa:singya:wh.
    Nahxa kilexich ya’ng’e'ti’.
    Diydi hayde’ hay tehmil?
    Na’iya tehmil-me’q hay-yo:w la:yxw ‘e:na:ng’?

    Coyote is walking.
    There was a long house standing somewhere.
    A bunch of girls are digging Indian potatoes. (They are an edible tuber, sometimes known as groundnuts.)
    Come on up to the house.
    Two boys were sitting there.
    What is in that sack?
    It is only Rain there in the sack.