Language revival and rediscovery is on the rise in various parts of the world and in the U.S., fourth graders are today learning that Tongva or Gabrielino was the original language spoken all over Los Angeles.
It had been 50 years since Tongva had been spoken in Los Angeles although there are several reminders of the language that remain. Most of them are names of villages in L.A., such as Cahuenga, which was from the word “Kawee’nga, which translates to “place of the fox” and Tujunga, a name that originated from “Tongva Tuhuunga,” which meant “place of the old woman.”
Finding information about the Tongva language was quite difficult because of the absence of audio recordings. There were some wax cylinder records of a few songs in Tongva but these were already scratchy. Some word lists from explorers and scholars from 1838 to 1903 were available but the best resources so far were the field notes of John Peabody Harrington.
J. P. Harrington was an American ethnologist and linguist who worked for 40 years as a field ethnologist for the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Museum. He had collected a huge amount of raw data on native languages and peoples, including Gabrielino.
Reviving a language
UCLA professor Pamela Munro, who has been studying various indigenous languages in Latin America and the U.S. has compiled a dictionary of the Tongva language that contains more than one thousand words. She said that she believes that she has now understands a bit about its grammar. She related that she based her work on the data from the Harrington collection and was able to develop a writing system using ordinary letters found on a regular keyboard.
While Tongva could be written using a regular keyboard, there are rules to be followed, just like when you are learning a new language, such as Spanish where the double-l is pronounced like the letter “y.”
Professor Munro recalled the time that she was requested to be a linguistic mentor to some Tongva people who want to learn their language. This was during the biennial event held in Berkley called the Breath of Life Workshop, which is attended by members of the Indian Tribes in California. If their languages are no longer spoken, they could learn how to access available materials related to those languages.
In the case of Professor Munro, she had three Tongva learners to coach. So she had her grammar notes, her dictionary and sample spelling system. Sadly, it did not occur to her that her needs as an academic linguist could be different from the needs of the ethnic learner.
They asked her how they could pray in their own language. They also wanted a dictionary where the source language is English and Tongva as the target language and not the other way around.
And while she had to laboriously make copies of the dictionary in the order that her learners wanted that day, she now had a core group of Tongva language learners. With contributions from the group, they have initial success in reviving a language that had no speakers previously. They have lessons in sentence creation and word structure. They have songs, which were helpful in learning the language and together they learn useful phrases they could use for conversation.