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Linguist to Assist in Salvaging Remains of Comanche Language, Devising College Course

Written by Featured Organization on 16 November 2009.

Mowa-Way, Comanche Indian{Editor’s note: The phrase Numu Tekwapu in this story features a strikethrough on the last u of Numu and a strikethrough and underline on the last u in Tekwapu.} This fall, a Texas Tech University professor of anthropology will begin the difficult task of collecting the remnants of the near-extinct Comanche language, then creating a way it can be taught in a university setting.

Jeff Williams, chairman of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, will serve as an external evaluator for Numu Tekwapu, a project to document and revitalize the Comanche language. He will work with tribe members and researchers at Comanche Nation College in Lawton, Okla., to record what’s left of the language and create a method for teaching it to students at the college.

The project is funded through a $215,000 competitive grant awarded to Comanche Nation College from the Administration for Native Americans, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“The Comanche language is nearly dead,” Williams said. “Of the 13,000 people on the tribe’s enrollment, we had, at last estimate, 20 to 25 speakers. Kids aren’t learning it anymore. Speakers are much, much older. It’s in a really bad way. Part of my task is to create a digital archive of what we know of Comanche, the other is to use technology and devise a way to teach college students the language.”

He attributed the language’s demise to the fact that Comanche, Kiowa and Apache tribes lost their reservations in the Oklahoma Indian Territory at the turn of the 20th century. Instead, they received allotments that interspersed Anglos and other non-Indians within what had been Indian Country. Also, generations of Comanche children were sent to boarding schools where they were reprogrammed, often violently, to assimilate to white culture. This created a “lost generation” that disrupted the flow of the tribe’s culture and language.

Comanche is a complex, relatively recent offshoot of the Shoshoni language that came about as the tribe splintered and moved south from their homelands in the Great Basin region of the United States, Williams said.

The language, a branch of the vast Uto-Aztecan languages, was passed on orally and didn’t have its own writing system until 1994. Of the world’s 6,000-7,000 languages, it’s one of a handful possessing “voiceless vowels.” In written Comanche, these voiceless vowels are represented with underlining. While they are written, they are almost inaudible when spoken.

Williams couldn’t say exactly how much of Comanche has already disappeared because no records exist of it while it was still in use. However, he compared it to New Mexico’s Zuni language, which, while still used and undergoing a preservation process, lost much of its more formal speaking patterns.

“If we look at the Zuni language, it’s estimated that it had about seven different speech levels,” he said. “The first level was the most informal and the seventh was the highest, most formal and sacred way to speak. The top four or five levels of speech are completely lost. Most people only speak in the lowest registers, which would have been the most vernacular style of speaking. It would not signal honor or respect for elders or those who possessed specialized knowledge or skills.

“There’s no telling how much of the Comanche language is lost. And as speakers get older, they begin to forget and use less of it.”

Todd McDaniels, assistant professor of linguistics at Comanche Nation College, serves as project director. He said the project was spurred by a need for Comanche language learning materials that are educationally sound, organized according to a curriculum based on outcomes, and capable of serving accreditation interests.

The resulting product will be a series of interactive, computer-assisted Comanche language learning modules that require that students match audio of spoken Comanche with selections of pictures without reliance on translation, he said.

“We're basically starting at square one,” McDaniels said. “The purpose of the current project is to help develop Comanche speaking skills in students. Everything is ‘sit down and crack your knuckles’ type of work. We will need to work hard to develop interest, enthusiasm and goodwill within the Comanche community, most especially with native Comanche speakers.”