Nearly 80 Native American languages, some of which now deemed extinct, have been brought back to life with the help of digital technology.

Bringing Native American Languages Back To Life

Linguists and curators at the University of California Berkeley are working to preserve thousands of long-lost audio recordings of almost 80 native Californian languages by transferring the audio to a digital archive, parts of which can now be accessed by the public.

The recordings, which were part of a collection from the Phoebe A. Hurst Museum of Anthropology, were recorded by a team led by cultural anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in the early 1900s in an effort to preserve the native languages and cultural heritage belonging to Native Americans.

With the use of phonograph, Kroeber's team was able to create 3,000 Edison wax cylinders that contained narratives, prayers, songs, histories, and the names of objects in multiple native languages. The cylinders date back to 1900 up to 1940.

Unfortunately, the recordings were terrible and the sound was audible but not understandable. However, researchers at UC Berkeley were determined not to lose the cultural treasures stored in the cylinders.

Project IRENE Revives Long-Lost Languages

Edison wax cylinders are fragile, and more than a century of storage would have rendered them unplayable. Such was the case with the 3,000 recordings from the collection. Most of them have been damaged by the passage of time that playing them would cause permanent destruction.

To get around this, the researchers took advantage of an optical scanning technology that allowed them to transfer the sound from the cylinders to a computer. Using a program called Weaver, the computer analyzed the scanned data and turned it into sound.

Dubbed Project IRENE, the technique was invented at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in cooperation with the US Library of Congress. This process has allowed the researchers to breathe new life into several Native American languages, some of which no longer have native speakers.

Recordings Available To The Public

Under Project IRENE, the researchers have now completed the digitization of 2,800 Edison wax cylinders. They have been cataloged and sent to the linguistics department, where they are examined before being uploaded.

The recordings are now part of the California Language Archive, which carries 16,000 audio files containing 425 different Native American languages.

Linguist Julia Nee, who is taking up her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, says she has received several requests from members of tribal groups who would like to access the files. In keeping with native practices, the majority of the recordings are not available for public listening, although tribal members and researchers may be granted access.

"There are some traditional songs and dances that are only meant to be performed or listened to at particular times of year or by particular people. There might be songs that are specific for women or men. Or for winter or summer or raining season or dry season," Nee explains. "And if the wrong people listen to them at the wrong time, it's believed to have negative effects on the community."

Some of the files available to the public include narratives recorded in Salinan in 1910 about a trip to San Francisco and fighting forest fires. Salinan has been considered extinct since its last native speaker died in 1958.

There is also a 1902 recording of a recital of a story called Myth of Coyote. The story was recorded in Rumsen, whose last fluent speaker died in 1939.

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