Tlingit is a deeply endangered language spoken in Southeast Alaska and in the interior of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. The closest relatives to Tlingit are languages of the Athabaskan family and the nearly extinct language Eyak. Nearly all of the estimated 150 remaining fluent speakers in Alaska are middle-aged or elderly people. Among this group, only the oldest generation has a full range of fluency and is capable of distinguishing the finer subtleties and nuances held in the language. Adding to the endangerment of the language is its level of complexity. The Tlingit verb has 11 prefix and suffix positions. Combining these with the verb stem results in contractions which often drastically change their original form. Overall, the conjugation of Tlingit verbs is very complex, differing greatly from the familiar patterns found in the Romance and Germanic languages, thus making Tlingit quite difficult to learn as a second language.
This project consists of three closely related activities which advance the documentation of the Tlingit language and add to the available resources for language teachers and learners alike. The activities include: the development of a reference grammar of Tlingit which will serve to explain the grammar to language learners in as non-technical a way as possible; the completion of Intermediate Tlingit, a pedagogical textbook and Principal Parts, a verb book which will provide verb paradigms for roughly 200 verbs; and the digitization of a large collection of approximately 40-year-old audio cassette tapes containing Tlingit narrative, oratory and ethnographic information - a wealth of primary data in the language. The project investigators will conduct research through consultation with fluent speakers to inform the reference grammar, text book, and verb book. Data gathered from speakers will be recorded and organized into learner-friendly grammatical explanations. The audio cassette tapes will be digitized in a professional studio and will then be archived in the Sealaska Heritage Institute archives.
This project will also provide insight into the complex structure of Tlingit grammar and will add to the corpus of linguistic data available to linguists as well as cognitive scientists. In addition, the project activities will provide much needed Tlingit language resources to a growing body of language learners and teachers committed to the revitalization of the language.