Graduate students in linguistics leaving legacy for speakers of endangered language of Garifuna

Graduate students in linguistics professor Lev Michael’s class at the University of California, Berkeley, will wrap up the year by producing a legacy for speakers of an endangered language called Garifuna.

Under the guidance of Michael and native Garifuna (pronounced Ga-RIF-foo-nah) speaker Philip Tim Palacio of Rocklin, Calif., the nine students have spent the fall and spring semesters studying the complex and little understood indigenous language of the approximately 200,000 Garinagu living in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala as well as within Diaspora communities in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and New York City.

“This is groundbreaking work that we are doing, and it will leave a lasting legacy for the world, and for everyone who has an interest in learning Garifuna,” said Palacio.

The Garifuna people, also known as the Garinagu, are descendants of West African, Carib and Arawak people and trace their origins to a wrecked African slave ship that washed ashore in the Caribbean in 1675, and the Calinago, Carib and Arawaks who inhabited Eastern Caribbean Islands including St. Vincent. Intermingling of the Caribs, Africans and indigenous Arawaks resulted in the Garifuna language, which also was influenced by English, Spanish and French. Garifuna belongs to the Arawak linguistic family, whose members are mostly found in the Amazon Basin.

The language, music and dance of the Garifuna were collectively proclaimed a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2001.

Garifuna hasn’t been studied extensively, and Michael said its quirkiness presents challenges. It features a vocabulary split between terms used only by men and terms that are marked for common use, and used by women, children and men. But the split doesn’t affect the entire vocabulary, and the terms used by men tend to come from the Carib language influence while the common forms are largely from Arawak.

Michael said students’ scientific analysis of the phonetics of the language, including its nasal vowels, its conceptual structure of spatial relations and the syntactic factors governing “what is the most complex and baroque agreement system I have ever seen in my life” represents a major advance in the understanding of Garifuna.

Christine Sheil, a UC Berkeley graduate student in linguistics, said she loved that the students had to struggle to work out the basic grammatical structure of the language: What sounds does the language have? Where does the subject go?  And as they worked up to more complicated structures, they had to discover how questions are asked, how nouns are modified and how things were discussed in the past and progressive tenses.

She noted that Michael banned students from reading anything about Garifuna for the first semester so that they would experience more realistically what it might be like to document a totally unknown language. 

Palacio acknowledged that Garifuna can be challenging to translate. “For example, when my dad used to see any of his seven children were wasting time and not working as hard as they should, he would tell us that we were ‘ataha gañé’ (drinking eggs), ‘éleha mesu’ (peeling cats), or ‘adimureha dabarasi’ (talking pan). These expressions are similar to the English expression of ‘being in la-la land.’”

Sheil called Garifuna “a wonderfully complicated language” with little work done on it in terms of grammar, dictionaries or more theoretical articles, so many questions remain about how the language works.

Garifuna stories, lessons online

To listen to a National Public Radio report on “The ‘Voice’ of the Garifuna”

To hear NPR’s report about UNESCO’s declaration of Garifuna language and culture as a humanitarian masterpiece.

Click here for a website complete with Garifuna lessons and interviews with people about the importance of the language.

Students will present their work in a “Garifuna Fest” mini conference on campus on Monday, April 23. In the coming weeks and months, Palacio and the National Garifuna Council in his native country of Belize will print and distribute a Garifuna grammar book based on the students’ work for use by the general public.

The book will be helpful to Garifuna people in the Caribbean island country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines “who have lost the language completely, as well as people seeking to retrieve or learn the language throughout much of Central America and in the United States, too,” said Palacio.

“This is really very exciting for us as grad students,” said Sheil, “because it means that there is a lot we can contribute, not only for linguistics as a field, but also with this self-teaching guide we’re working on.”

UC Berkeley’s linguistics department faculty members are known for their work to document and save endangered languages. Michael, along with professors Andrew Garrett and Line Mikkelsen received National Science Foundation grants last year to support their research on endangered the languages of Western Tukanoan in Western Amazonia, and Yurok and Karuk in Northern California. The biennial “Breath of Life – Silent No More” workshop on California Indian language restoration will be held again this year on campus from June 3-9.

Michael, an anthropological linguist whose research concentrates on Amazonia and surrounding regions, said the book is the sort of thing that is becoming an increasingly common product of linguistic study, as scholars of endangered languages contribute not just to an academic knowledge base, but also to the cultures they study.

“I am happy to do my little part to help save and retrieve the Garifuna culture,” added Palacio, noting that less than 5 percent of the population of Belize speaks Garifuna and most of those speakers are elderly.

“On a personal level,” he said, “my children do not speak Garifuna, and the same goes for the majority of Garifuna people that I know in my age group.  If concrete steps are not taken to retrieve the language, it will definitely be lost.”