The life's work of an eccentric linguist yielded more than a million pages of notations on indigenous languages from North to South America. All that's needed is to decipher them.

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DAVIS, Calif. — The first time José Freeman heard his tribe’s lost language through the crackle of a 70-year-old recording, he cried.

“My ancestors were speaking to me,” said Freeman of the sounds captured when American Indians still inhabited California’s Salinas Valley. “It was like coming home.”

Though the last native speaker of Salinan died almost half a century ago, more and more indigenous people are finding their extinct or endangered tongues, one word or song at a time, thanks to a late linguist and some University of California, Davis, scholars who are working to transcribe his life’s obsession.

Driven to record the native languages he saw disappearing all around him, John Peabody Harrington spent four decades gathering more than 1 million pages of phonetic notations on languages spoken by tribes from Alaska to South America. When the technology became available, he supplemented his written record with audio recordings — first using wax cylinders, then aluminum discs.

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Martha Macri, who teaches California Indian Studies at UC Davis and is one of the principal researchers on the J.P. Harrington Database Project, is working with American Indian volunteers to transcribe Harrington’s phonetic notations. Once the words are entered into a database that tribes can access, researchers hope they will bridge the long silence separating the people Harrington interviewed from their descendants.

Although it will be years before all the material can be made available, some American Indians connected to the Harrington Project have already begun putting it to use. Members of Freeman’s tribe gather on their ancestral land every month to practice what they’ve learned of their language — a few words, some grammar, old songs.

“The ultimate outcome is to get it back to the communities it came from,” Macri said. “There is so much cultural knowledge embedded in language.”

“They trusted him”

By all accounts, Harrington, who died in 1961, was a devoted, if somewhat eccentric, scholar. Sometimes he spent 20 or 30 minutes on one word, saying it over and over until the person he was interviewing agreed he’d gotten the pronunciation correct, said Jack Marr, who met Harrington as a 12-year-old boy and worked as his assistant into his 20s.

“They trusted him,” Marr said of the Indians they worked with. “A lot of people, if they tried to walk in and say, ‘I want to record you,’ they’d get thrown out. But not Harrington. I think people recognized that we were doing this for posterity.”

The linguist’s sense of urgency animates the letters he sent to Marr nearly every day.

“Rain or no rain, rush,” Harrington said in signing off one such dispatch. “Dying languages depend on you.”

But the same impulse that made him successful — in many cases his notes provide the only record of long-gone languages — would also confound later efforts to pass the words down to new generations.

Harrington was so focused on gathering information, for instance, that he spent little time polishing his work for publication, according to Marr. He hated being “cooped up” in an office, wasting precious time on papers, Marr said. Deeply mistrustful of other researchers, he stashed much of his research as he traveled, deliberately keeping it out of reach of his colleagues.

Decades of sorting and categorizing followed. The National Anthropological Archives finally finished transferring Harrington’s notes to microfilm in 1991.

Linguists, archeologists, botanists and others have spent the years since combing through the files. But microfilm readers are expensive, and reading the notations requires some training, said Macri.

So the treasure trove of information on lost native languages remained inaccessible to the people with the most interest — tribal members.

The Harrington Project was created with the goal of returning the words to those who can imbue them with life again, as well as making the material more accessible to scholars.

The researchers are teaching tribal members across California how to read Harrington’s cramped handwriting and decipher the notation system he devised, then sort the information into searchable categories.

For now, Macri’s team is focused on the more than 100 California languages Harrington cataloged, such as Wiyot, Serrano and Luiseno, for which there are few records other than Harrington’s work.

Making sense to others

Jacob Gutierrez, a member of the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians (“Pipiimaram,” in the tribe’s own language), has been working on the project for 2 ½ years. He has decoded all the material Harrington gathered on his people — more than 6,000 pages — and is now working on information about their linguistic neighbors to the north.

“I find it to be the most rewarding work I have ever done,” he said. “Every new word, story or song is an absolute treasure for me and my people.”

Wondering out loud whether Harrington would have been satisfied to see languages born again from his notes and recordings, Marr said, “It’s gratifying.”

“But he would have felt very sad he didn’t get more. He always wanted to do more.”

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