Back from the Brink

21 March 2019

With only about 200 native speakers left, the Dakotah language is considered critically endangered. Carleton professors—and students—want to help change that.

The journey began a few years ago, when computer science professor Jeff Ondich received a query through his language software company, Ultralingua, from the Dakotah Language Institute located on the Lake Traverse Reservation in eastern South Dakota. Its director, Tammy Decoteau, was hoping for a dictionary app—but Ondich saw potential for much more.

Ondich introduced Decoteau to Carleton’s linguistics department, and the Dakotah Language Institute commissioned the department to create a grammar—a clear, nontechnical written description—of the Dakotah language. The grammar goes beyond vocabulary, covering topics such as proper phrasing for questions and how to address elders in a formal way. “It will take us about 10 years to do it,” says linguistics professor Mike Flynn. Undaunted, the Carleton team set to work.

Ondich, Flynn, and linguistics professors Cati Fortin and Cherlon Ussery took turns visiting the reservation with students. “We wanted to involve our students from the start,” Fortin says. “This gives them a chance to do something practical with the skills they’re learning in class.”

The project blossomed into a linguistics course called “The Structure of Dakotah,” team-taught by Flynn and Fortin in winter 2018. The class featured several guest speakers, including Decoteau, who frequently joined the class via video link. The students used the information in the growing database of Decoteau’s notes to complete research projects, some of which will be used for the Dakotah grammar.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a multimedia encyclopedia that combines resources on Dakotah language and culture. To that end, work is continuing on a variety of fronts. Fortin and Kyra Wilson ’20 (Swisher, Iowa), a linguistics and computer science double major, are submitting proposals to present their work on the Dakotah language at upcoming conferences. Carleton loaned Decoteau video and audio equipment last fall to record the elders speaking the language. Ondich is prepping the digital dictionary for launch, and the Carleton team will keep making progress on the database of Decoteau’s notes.

“Dakotah is starting to show up elsewhere in our curriculum, too,” says Fortin. “Mike is teaching a seminar on phonology that includes some material on Dakotah. I’ve included a section on endangered languages in my sections of the introductory course. Our plan is to just keep working.”

Students and professors on the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota.