Page last updated at 19:23 GMT, Thursday, 26 May 2005 20:23 UK

Bid to save nearly-lost language

An image of the text on the language written by linguist Edward Sapir
The Nuuchahnulth language has incredibly long and complex words

It is spoken by only a handful of people but, after 5,000 years, a rare native American language is to get its own dictionary.

Some 300 people, descendants of a Native American people in west Canada, still speak Nuuchahnulth.

But almost no young people in the community on Vancouver Island know the ancient language.

The professor behind the dictionary project hopes the text will help the language survive by aiding teachers.

Long words

The dictionary, which has 7,500 entries, is the fruit of 15 years of research into the language.

It is based on both work with current speakers and notes from linguist Edward Sapir, taken almost a century ago.

CPS:FACT>puqee-oh - Always-absent woman
hina?aluk- I look out for what I know is to happen
Simaacyin?ahinnaanuhsim?aki - their whaling spears were poised in the bow
haasulapi-ck'in?i - sing a little louder

"Less than 10% of the traditional population now speaks the Nuuchahnulth language," Dr John Stonham of Newcastle University told the BBC News website.

He said linguists found the language fascinating because of its complexity.

"Entire sentences can be built up into a single word," Dr Stonham said.

"But there are also some concepts that can be encapsulated in a single syllable. A single sound describes the state of remaining in seclusion when the husband goes out to hunt, for example."

Dr Stonham hopes providing a dictionary of words will encourage teachers to use the language in the classroom and that older people too will be spurred into passing their language on to the next generation.

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