Japan-born linguist honored for writing the book on Nez Perce

Haruo Aoki receives blanket from Nez Perce scholars Beth Piatote (right) and Angel Sobotta (left). (UC Berkeley photo by Melani King)

When Haruo Aoki arrived at UC Berkeley in 1958 as the university’s first linguistics student from Japan, he was asked by then-department chair Mary Haas, an advocate for the study of American Indian languages, if he was interested in studying Nez Perce.

“Where is Nez Perce spoken, Miss Haas?” he asked.

“In Idaho,” she replied.

“Could I think it over a couple of days,” Aoki said, as he tried to figure out where exactly Idaho was, and how he was supposed to get there.

Sixty years later, Aoki, 87, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of East Asian languages and literature, bears the unique distinction of having written the book, or at least lexicon, on Nez Perce, one of the languages spoken by indigenous people of the Columbia River Plateau of the Pacific Northwest.

“I use his dictionary every single day. Every day I think of Haruo and I thank him,” said Angel Sobotta, an adjunct professor of Nez Perce at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho.

Sobotta was among a group of Nez Perce scholars and tribal members honoring Aoki at a lunch ceremony in UC Berkeley’s linguistics department on Wednesday (Nov. 8).

UC Berkeley linguists Leanne Hinton (left), Haruo Aoki, and Philip Cash Cash, a Nez Perce scholar and recent Ph.D. grad from the University of Arizona (UC Berkeley photo by Melani King)

Speaking in Nez Perce and English, their voices at times choked with emotion, the group thanked Aoki for helping to connect them to the language of their ancestors.

As part of the ceremony, they bestowed upon Aoki a heavy wool, brown, orange and green Pendleton blanket and other gifts.

Milton “Jewie” Davis, a member of the Colville Tribal Language Preservation Program in Washington state, referred to Aoki as a member of the family.

“We call him our relative … because of the work he did for our people,” Davis said.

Davis spoke of the need to preserve indigenous languages as tribal elders die out and their native languages become extinct.

“At least we’re doing something,” he said. “We’re not letting our language go.”

Also attending the luncheon was Leanne Hinton, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of linguistics and a key force in the revitalization of California’s native languages.

After hearing their tributes, Aoki, a linguist of few spoken words, said, “Thank you. You honor me,” then joked that he speaks Nez Perce with a Japanese accent.

The luncheon was part of a two-day event on and off campus in which UC Berkeley linguists and Nez Perce scholars discussed how tribal communities and universities can work together to preserve indigenous languages.

In his 2014 online autobiography Stories from My Life, Aoki recounts his journey from his birthplace in Japan-ruled Kunsan, South Korea, to the United States via a Fulbright scholarship.

After earning a master’s degree from UCLA, he came to UC Berkeley as a doctoral student in linguistics. His Ph.D. dissertation was titled “Nez Perce Grammar.”  His books include Nez Perce Texts, Nez Perce Oral Narratives and the Nez Perce Dictionary.

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Washington Post column about Aoki by Garrison Keillor