Rescuing Endangered Native Languages

Lenore Grenoble (Photo by Andrew Nelles)

The following article appeared in UChicago News on 13 October.

How do you save a language?

That question has occupied linguist Lenore Grenoble since the early 1990s, when she made her first trek to a remote area of Siberia to study Evenki, the rapidly disappearing tongue of a Siberian indigenous group.

A Slavic linguist by training, Grenoble had been studying languages like Russian, Polish, and Old Church Slavonic for years. But she wanted to apply her expertise beyond the academy.

“I decided when I got tenure that I would take my expertise and do something that was also socially meaningful,” says Grenoble, the John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor in Linguistics.

Grenoble’s work on Evenki launched a new phase in her career. “I became interested in not just Evenki, but the kinds of things that happen when a language is lost: the linguistic changes, the social changes, the factors that drive people to speak one language over another,” she explains. “I started looking at the broader picture globally.”

Today, Grenoble is an internationally respected expert in the study of endangered languages and the author of several books on the topic.  Although much of her work focuses on the indigenous languages of the Arctic, she has conducted fieldwork on other languages such as Māori in New Zealand and the Wolof language in Senegal.

She is also taking an active role to protect indigenous languages as coordinator of the Arctic Council’s Arctic Indigenous Languages Vitality project.

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