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Keepers of a Lost Language

An 82-year-old linguist and his young protégé are among the last speakers of a native California language -- and its final chance.

After devoting his life to understanding the mechanics and music of languages, William Shipley speaks fewer than you might expect. The 82-year-old linguist studied Latin and Greek as a youth, learned Mandarin during World War II, and is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. But the language Shipley is most proud of knowing, the one that has shaped his career and much of the course of his life, is understood by less than a dozen people on earth. It is Mountain Maidu, and it was once spoken by some two to three thousand California Indians who lived in the northern Sierra Nevada.

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Shipley learned the language 50 years ago, from a half-Maidu, half-Dutch woman named Maym Benner Gallagher. As a 32-year-old graduate student in linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley, Shipley had arrived at Gallagher's door in Maidu country, roughly 200 miles northeast of San Francisco, one snowy December afternoon in 1953. Armed with a tape recorder the size of a footlocker, he explained that he was looking for someone to teach him Maidu. Gallagher's husband, Lee, was concerned that Shipley had traveled a long way for nothing. "I've always heard it told," he explained, "that white people couldn't learn these languages."

Maidu is certainly unlike anything most white people are likely to have encountered. It has eight cases and no prepositions and contains an arsenal of sounds not found in any European language -- glottalized k's and g's, imploded b's and d's. Like many Indian languages, it is polysynthetic, meaning that what we would express in a sentence the Maidu express in a single word containing a long string of suffixes.

Yet Shipley thought he might be able to manage it. Languages came easily to him -- as a child he used to invent his own, a pastime his father considered a sign of impending lunacy. After studying anthropology and linguistics at Berkeley, he joined a kind of linguistic salvage operation funded by the California Legislature. Each summer five graduate students were provided with a car, a tape recorder, and enough money to hire a native teacher. The goal was to document California Indian languages before they disappeared.

Maym Gallagher was 64 when Shipley met her, although she looked and seemed much younger. She had wavy black hair, a talent for the violin, and a raunchy sense of humor quite unlike anything Shipley had ever encountered in a woman. She had grown up both bilingual and bicultural, speaking Maidu with her mother and English with her father, a Dutch settler who had come to the Mount Lassen foothills from Wisconsin by covered wagon as a child. Her formal education had ended after high school, but she was a natural scholar. Within a few weeks of working together, the two had dispensed with the traditional relationship between academic and informant and began collaborating as colleagues, thus commencing what Shipley describes as "one of the great friendships of my life."

Over the course of the next two summers, the pair developed a routine. They worked on the language three or four afternoons a week, knocking off around five to drink beer and talk. Some days they'd go driving around Maidu country, looking for old-timers who could still speak the language and stopping off for a drink at a local tavern on the way home. Gallagher loved to sit there smiling pleasantly at the overweight white clientele and then lean over to ask Shipley in Maidu, "Did you ever see anything fatter and more disgusting?"

Shipley still has the pale turquoise eyes and easy grin he had as a young man, and it sometimes startles him to realize that those backcountry rambles are a half-century in the past. Throughout his career as a linguistics professor at the University of California, Maidu has been his enduring passion, and Gallagher -- who died in 1978 -- has been the blithe spirit inhabiting his work. He developed a system for writing the language and has published a grammar, a dictionary, and a lyrical translation of Maidu myths and stories. He is now one of the last living speakers of the language, and he sometimes worries that there is no one left among the tribe who can teach it with Gallagher's level of particularity and care. "I have all this language in my head and I want to get it down," he explained recently. "Because if I don't do it, nobody else can."

But lately, Shipley has been worrying less than he used to. Two years ago he acquired a roommate, a young Maidu of mixed blood with an uncanny ear for language, a sweet and openhearted view of the world, and a firm desire to return the Maidu language to his people. His name is Kenny Holbrook, and he is Maym Gallagher's grandson.

The question of how many fluent Maidu speakers remain is a touchy one, not least because many Maidu resent the notion that a white ethnolinguist may be the keeper of the linguistic flame. A lot depends on how you define it -- does someone speak Maidu if they know a lot of words or phrases? If they're capable of putting together new sentences? If they can think in Maidu? A fluent speaker, according to Shipley, can speak unself-consciously. By that definition, only a handful of fluent speakers remains. But even if you count people whose grasp of the language is limited to words and phrases, there are no more than a dozen speakers left, most of whom are in their 80s.

The situation is not unusual. At the time of the Gold Rush, there were about a hundred different Indian languages spoken in California. Today, fewer than 50 survive. The majority have fewer than five fluent speakers remaining, most quite elderly.

Language preservation and revitalization is a topic of tremendous concern throughout Native America, with some larger tribes investing some of the wealth generated by tribal casinos in full-scale native language immersion programs. But this kind of approach is impractical in California, in part because no treaties were ever ratified for California Indians, leaving most tribes without the land base to maintain a community of native speakers.

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