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Indian linguist teaches Haida language—and learns it in the process

March 17, 2016
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By Marianne Meadahl

A distinguished linguist and scholar who studies dying languages in her native India is teaching a Simon Fraser University field linguistics course to help students acquire the tools to analyze, document and help preserve an endangered B.C. First Nations language.

With the help of a local Haida speaker, professor Anvita Abbi is teaching the course in her role as SFU’s first Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) visiting scholar. The course explores the phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics of Haida, a B.C. First Nations coastal language. It is also proving a learning experience for Abbi, who had no experience with the Haida language before starting the course.

“This important language, so central to the First Nations people, is one of the most ancient languages spoken, and it is critical that it is kept from vanishing,” says Abbi, who will give a public talk on Mar. 22 at 6 p.m. at SFU’s Segal Graduate School of Business on her lifelong work saving languages in India, entitled Breathing Life into Dying Language: Experiencing Great Andamanese.

Students are learning to use the tools to unravel “a most difficult language, to understand the sound system, word formation, processes and other areas of grammar,” says Abbi, noting that when languages die “not only are the words lost but there is a tragic loss of culture and knowledge base.”

During an earlier visit to SFU, Abbi met Marianne Ignace, director of SFU’s First Nations Language Centre, who is coordinating language preservation efforts across B.C. She arranged for Haida elder Lawrence Bell to assist with the course.

“He is very patient, and good at explaining the minute differences in the meaning of a word, which is helping us to grasp the complexity of the language,” says Abbi.

Proficient in the Haida language, Bell provides a wealth of knowledge and clarity during class. With help from Bell and teaching assistant Kelli Finney, Abbi is creating an online word list.

Abbi developed the discipline of field linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and is author of A Manual of Linguistic Fieldwork and Structures of Indian Languages (2001) and Endangered Languages of the Andaman Islands (2006).

Her extensive research includes the first comparative study of the Islands’ three most endangered languages, and the discovery that India has six rather than five languages, including Great Andamanese. (www.adamanese.net)

Abbi has earned international acclaim and multiple awards, including the prestigious Padma Shri, presented to her by India’s president. She is the honorary director of the Centre for Oral and Tribal Literature at the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, and president of the Linguistic Society of India.

"The ICCR visiting scholar program demonstrates the value of global partnerships to students, researchers and members of the communities that we serve,” says SFU VP Academic Jon Driver. “We are particularly pleased that such a distinguished scholar is collaborating with an indigenous language expert to pass on their shared knowledge to our students."