American Indian/Indigenous Languages Seminar extends reach, becomes inclusive forum
(Maleeha Zaman/Daily Bruin)
Nov. 25, 2021 10:57 p.m.
After more than three decades in session, the American Indian/Indigenous Languages Seminar at the Department of Linguistics has grown to become a forum for linguists to study Indigenous languages, as well as present and receive feedback on their research in the subject.
Linguistics 265A: American Indian/Indigenous Languages Seminar is a weekly seminar that was first created by linguistics distinguished research professor emeritus Pamela Munro in the 1980s as a place for graduate students to discuss Muskogean languages, which are a group of Indigenous languages originally spoken in what is now the southeastern United States.
Over time, the original group of graduate students graduated and the seminar expanded to include the study of Indigenous languages from throughout the Americas and the world.
The seminar meets every Tuesday and has had a variety of different attendees and speakers, including graduate students and linguistics professors from different universities – some of whom are Munro’s former students – as well as retired linguists.
Each week, a scholar presents original research to the group. UCLA students can enroll in the seminar for one unit if they do not plan to present or four units if they conduct a presentation. The latest seminar meeting featured a presentation by Munro on comparatives in the Yuman languages.
In the past, Munro said, the seminar was completely in person in Campbell Hall. Since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered universities in 2020, however, the seminar has been held online. It now offers a hybrid format in which attendees can elect to attend solely online or join the Zoom from within Campbell Hall with Munro, providing they are masked.
Munro said she hopes to continue to offer the seminar virtually in the future and has been appealing to the university to keep the seminar online to continue fostering equal collaboration with researchers beyond UCLA.
“People from many countries in Europe and many states and other places in California and Mexico came to the seminar during the pandemic,” she said. “We could all meet in person the way we used to, and we could maybe have a Zoom window, but that would not have really had the same effect for discussion.”
Munro has been a professor at UCLA since 1974 and has been an author of multiple books including “Mojave Syntax,” “Slang U” and the textbook “Linguistics: An Introduction to Linguistic Theory.” She also has ongoing research in collaboration with native speakers of Chickasaw, Garifuna, Zapotec, Quichua and Wolof and teaches two community language classes on the Tongva and Garifuna languages, which are primarily reserved for those of the groups’ heritage.
Cormac League, a fourth-year Latin American studies and linguistics student at the University of Southern California, has attended the seminar for the past two weeks. League said he primarily focuses on Uto-Aztecan languages and reached out to Munro, an expert on the language group.
“I asked her if I could go to the (seminar),” he said. “I’ve only gone twice, but I’m so grateful that (this) resource is available, especially to people outside of the school. Because it’s like, for studying Indigenous languages, it’s just not if you want to do it, you have to seek it out.”
League said he intends to continue attending the seminars, even after graduating, when he plans to attend graduate school. He has been inspired to look for topics from the seminar in the languages he studies and plans to discuss them with his own professors, League added.
Cynthia Teyolia, a graduate student in American Indian studies, said she decided to enroll in the seminar to present her own research into Dise, a member of the Zapotec language family indigenous to southwest Mexico. Dise is a heritage language to her, Teyolia added – her great-great grandmother was from Ayoquezco, Oaxaca, where the language is spoken, and her mother still carries on cultural practices from that heritage.
Although she is not a student of linguistics, Teyolia said presenting to the seminar provided her useful feedback on her research and helped her connect with Munro for guidance in her continued study of Dise.
“The work I’m doing with Dise is a lifelong mission, it’s something I would love to accomplish, to be able to speak,” Teyolia added.
Teyolia said she plans to collect oral histories about discrimination against Indigenous peoples and land theft by settlers from Indigenous communities in Oaxaca as part of her graduate study research, which Munro could help her navigate.
“I get the feeling that (Munro)’s the kind of professor that thinks outside the box, that helps me think outside the box,” Teyolia said.
The next seminar meeting on Nov. 23 will include a presentation by Aaron Sonnenschein, a linguistics professor at California State University, Los Angeles. Sonnenschein said he originally attended the seminar as a graduate student in linguistics at USC during the 1997-1998 academic year.
Munro served as a valuable mentor and member of his dissertation committee during his graduate studies, Sonnenschein added, and embodied a community-focused approach to linguistics that aligned with his own goals.
Sonnenschein presented research several times to the seminar over the years, he said, and originally presented on the Zoogocho Zapotec language as a graduate student. He said it was important for students to be able to receive feedback and have the opportunity to discuss methodology and research in a collaborative forum.
“As a graduate student, it was incredibly important to be able to be tested in a friendly, but informal kind of way where people can ask really difficult questions that you didn’t have answers to,” Sonnenschein said.
The upcoming seminar presentation will focus on a Chontal community book project, he added.
Teyolia was glad to have the opportunity to teach about Dise in the seminar and allow others to focus on and honor the language.
“We don’t need to talk about languages as this diminishing thing, or something that has the capacity of being extinct – our languages are living and breathing,” she said.