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Before he came to Utah two years ago to pursue a doctorate in linguistics, Jeff Pynes had already worked amid the Tolupan and other indigenous people of Central America, recording their speech and stories in an effort to document the words, syntax and grammar of their languages.
These tongues may be taught to young people to preserve them and the systems of knowledge they encode. Or they may shed light on structures common to all languages and even help scientists unlock which parts of language come from biology and which come from culture.
But time is running out for Tol and dozens of other native North and South American languages that are a few generations away, or less, from going silent forever.
A 2006 Berkeley graduate, Pynes was drawn to the University of Utah by its then-growing reputation for language preservation a vibrant subdiscipline within linguistics thanks to its Center for American Indian Languages, or CAIL. The center has been devoted to preserving indigenous languages across the Americas, from isolated corners of the Amazon to tribal schools in or near Utah.
"I decided to get a PhD to help the communities I worked with," says Pynes, who has made a dozen forays to Tolupan villages.
Pynes and his colleagues are now wondering if their quest is itself endangered after the U. announced two weeks ago that it was closing CAIL. Faced with the departure of center founder Lyle Campbell and shrinking resources, the College of Humanities decided to concentrate language-preservation efforts on Utah's tribal tongues.
"We see this move as enhancing them and being more responsive to the tribes. They can continue and expand on the work," says interim senior vice president Michael Hardman.
CAIL programs related to local tribes will be shifted to the college's American West Center and its new Language Center.
But others remain disappointed the U. didn't sustain the center, which supported itself with grants. Campbell, now at the University of Hawaii, and his interim successor, Chris Rogers, attribute CAIL's closing to a lack of support from the U.'s linguistics department.
Voices going silent • Of the world's 7,000 languages, about 40 percent are considered endangered. Between 50 and 90 percent will go extinct within 100 years, experts say. English, Spanish, Portuguese and French are replacing the languages spoken by many of the Americas' indigenous groups.
There were 280 languages spoken in what became the United States when Europeans were colonizing North America in the 17th century. Only 151 remain, and just 20 are being picked up by children, according to a recent report from Campbell's team in Hawaii. Recording disappearing languages is a core part of linguistics the scientific study of languages and its structures.
Zeroing on Uto-Aztecan, the language family associated with Utah's tribes, could undermine the U.'s academic credibility, according to Ives Goddard, a senior linguist with the Smithsonian Institution.
"It's not just about rescuing some cute little language. It's learning about human intellectual capacity in general. The goal is to find the universal hard-wired blueprint for language every one is born with," says Goddard, a friend of Campbell's who has served on CAIL's advisory board.
U. center takes off • Decades ago, the late Wick Miller recorded Shoshone speakers and created an archive now maintained at CAIL.
Arriving at Utah in 2004 as a key figure in language preservation, Campbell aimed to shape CAIL into a leading defender of language diversity across the Americas. He launched an annual international conference, built a partnership with the Smithsonian and secured more than $3 million in federal grants.
But the linguistics department made no subsequent faculty hires that would advance the center's mission. Campbell and CAIL colleague Marianna Di Paolo remained the only language preservation faculty, even after the retirement of Mauricio Mixco, an American Indian language specialist.
The department admitted fewer graduate students interested in language documentation, Campbell says. Such students do the academic grunt work of translating and transcribing recordings, writing up findings, helping tribes land their own grants and more.
"I was working so hard my health was suffering," Campbell says. At age 68, he left in 2010 for Hawaii. Two weeks later, Pynes arrived to discover the scholar he hoped to have as a mentor was gone.
Competing demands • Humanities Dean Robert Newman offered Campbell an appointment outside linguistics. But Campbell wanted more indigenous language specialists, which Newman says he could not order the department to hire.
"The fact that [Campbell] wasn't persuasive to the majority is something that sometimes happens in faculty governance," says Newman, a scholar of English literature.
Newman describes himself as an enthusiastic supporter of CAIL, noting he secured university money to fund Campbell's position, equipment and office space in the historic building at Fort Douglas it shares with the American West Center.
But after Campbell's exit, Newman says, it was hard to justify maintaining a research program revolving around his work.
To advise him, Newman gathered a committee comprising Rogers, a graduate student of Campbell's who was awarded his doctorate in 2010; historian Matt Basso, director of the American West Center; historian Rebecca Horn, director of the Latin American Studies program; and language professor Fernando Rubio, who teaches Spanish and holds an adjunct appointment in linguistics.
"If feasible," the panel wrote, "we recommend the preservation of [CAIL's] center status, research mission, and current research and outreach activities as well as the promotion of its future growth and expansion."
That advice echoed two prior reviews of the linguistics department. But the hires CAIL needed were unlikely, given the department's interest in "theoretical" versus "empirical" linguistics, the panel reported, charting the alternative course Newman followed.
Linguistics chairman Ed Rubin says he unequivocally endorses the value of language preservation. But he is obligated, he says, to address the broader needs of his nine-member faculty. Some linguistics scholars are grounded in social sciences, some in humanities, and others in the natural sciences, like Rubin, who analyzes syntax.
Uncertain future • After a national search last year, the department offered the CAIL directorship to Benjamin Bruening, a U. alumnus and linguistics professor at the University of Delaware, who declined for personal reasons. Newman and Rubin rejected the other candidates.
Rogers, since dismissed interim director, will continue part-time with the U., running Campbell's last Utah research grant for its remaining year. That work documents Ninam, a language spoken by Yanomaman tribes of the Amazon.
Officials assured Di Paolo that her employment is not in jeopardy, though they are uncertain where she will land. A tenured professor, she is no longer attached to the linguistics department, which she once chaired.
Pynes intends to stick out his graduate career at Utah and will keep working on the Ninam research, although his heart is with the Tol language. While there are 150,000 ethnic Tolupan living in Honduras, he estimates only 420 still speak the native language.
However, Pynes remains uncertain about his future as a language-saving linguist.
"It's not just a labor of love. It's a real dedication, above and beyond any day job," he says. "I'm not certain if academia will be an option. I have to make sure I can find a job, otherwise I won't be doing anyone a favor."