Monthly Archives: September 2011


I saw the sign from the highway and knew we were here. What a funny sensation! What a beautiful, green, cloudy, mountainous place, with gentle farms rising all around the highway mixed in with new concrete and brick construction everywhere, and colorful tile sculptures in public places.
Around 1992 while in graduate school in California, I read a book by Gabrielle Hermon that featured Imbabura Quechua to illustrate many points about Chomsky’s theory of principles and parameters in universal grammar. Reading this book suddenly made the theory more relevant and interesting to me; things that seemed trite and obvious about the structure of English looked amazing when seen to have the same underpinnings in a language as superficially different as Quechua. That’s when I decided to do my qualifying paper on second language acquisition of Spanish by Quechua speakers.
Theoretical linguistics books tend to be about as dry and abstract as anything I know. But here is the place, Imbabura, where the Quechua language is spoken by farmers and merchants. It all comes together for me – connecting my high school year in Bolivia, surrounded by indigenous people and those just one or two generations removed from speaking their ancestral languages; connecting many years of making Andean music, and then these recent years trying to get back to it all.
On the last night of the conference I talked with one of the Ecuadoran Quichua speaking women who was wearing traditional dress, and she referred to needing to get back home to take care of her animals and farm. Then in the next breath she let me know that her sister lives in Newark New Jersey and attends a protestant church full of Quichua speaking immigrants. Somehow, the juxtaposition of this woman’s traditional dress, her gentle manner and connection to the farm, seems light years away from the immigrant experience in gritty Newark, but I know they are both equally real and part of her family’s experience. Both worlds are part of my experience, too. I have spent the greater part of my adult life living and working with recent immigrants to the US. However, it is hard to maintain an accurate picture of where people come from when we see them in the context of inner city north America.

Language Dormancy vs. Death

One of the speakers at the conference was Brenda Lintinger, a speaker of Tunica-Tulane, a native north American language from Louisiana whose last fluent speaker died almost fifty years ago. She commented that her tribe never likes to consider their language dead, but rather, sleeping.
I was thinking later about the difference between sleeping and extinction. In the first case, there is hope against many odds that someone could wake the language up, and despite major changes in surroundings, it could be brought to life again. Hebrew in Israel, on a massive scale, and Wampanoag in Massachusetts, on a small scale, are two modern cases of such efforts. If you ever saw Woody Allen’s movie “Sleeper” you know it is hard to wake up and find yourself a big chunk of years in the future. Suppose your people were hunter-gatherers, who never had wheels except as sacred objects, and never built any lasting structures, but instead followed the movements of animals and crops with the seasons. You were still fully human, with deeply developed human culture and language, but modern people know little about your life because you didn’t leave much of a written or architectural record, or because the Europeans who first met you overwhelmed you with disease and war.
Now, you wake up in the 21st century with cars, internet and the weight of post-Bush America all around you. Casinos are big – your people may be able to build one, having some slim legal claim to sovereignty, but these casinos devastate the environment and prey on addictive tendencies in some individuals. Furthermore, because of the special legal status of your ethnic group, there is an enrollment period to prove you are a member of the tribe, and those who don’t sign up are not legally allowed after a certain cutoff date to benefit from the casinos. In this imaginary scenario I am mixing up the experiences of a number of different indigenous groups currently alive in what is now called New England, but the threads are real ones indigenous people have described to me and written about.
Against all these odds, languages and cultures can be revived. And the people who do reclaim their language and culture often describe a renewed sense of history and connectedness. The Tunica-Biloxi woman at the conference read an opening prayer in her language for all of us, and said that even though she is not certain how it used to be pronounced, she finds that just knowing the meaning of the words and saying them out loud allows them to roll off her tongue and experience a confidence that the phrasing will come naturally.