Edgartown linguist helping to restore indigenous Californian language

Bruce Nevin of Edgartown has landed a three-year grant to help restore an indigenous language in California. — Courtesy Bruce Nevin

Edgartown resident Bruce Nevin has been awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). 

The grant supports his work as a scientific linguist describing Achumawi, an indigenous language of northeastern California, and helping to restore it to its community; approximately 4,500 people are enrolled members of this federally recognized tribe. 

Funding is under the “Dynamic Language Infrastructure — Documenting Endangered Languages” program (DLI-DEL, formerly DEL), a joint initiative of the NSF and NEH. 

Prior DEL funding for the Achumawi database project began with a one-year fellowship in 2013, and three-year grants in 2020 and 2016, managed through the Endangered Language Fund in New Haven, Conn. 

Achumawi was formerly spoken in communities along most of the 200-mile length of the Pit River, which is the primary source (80 percent) of the Sacramento River. Dr. Nevin recorded stories, songs, and collections of words and expressions from the last fluent speakers in 1970–74, and 1992. 

His 1998 Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania describes the sound system of the language. His computer database of the language, which he has been developing since 1987, includes archival data from as long ago as 1888. It is now the tribe’s only means for reconstituting their language, an essential foundation of their cultural heritage.

Language activists in the tribe are using the Achumawi database for many purposes, but especially in classes, and in demonstrating to families how to establish domains of household activity where only the language is to be spoken, with the aim of making the home a “language nest” where children can become fluent speakers. Project employees include three of these, one of whom is now a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of California Davis. Their work has already demonstrated value in healing generational trauma from the California genocide. 

The current grant has three aims. The first is to wrap up the project with a grammar, dictionary, and annotated texts for publication. A second is to teach language activists in neighboring communities how to create such a database. The last is to turn the Achumawi database over to the Pit River community, repatriating what was given in trust by tribal elders 50 years ago. 

There may also be some restitution: Among the many Vineyard men who went to California during the gold rush was Dr. Nevin’s maternal great-grandfather, William C. West, whose remains are buried on Abel’s Hill. One of the few who came back with a poke of gold, he got it not by mining but by buying and selling land.