Here's a project no one hopes is the last word

WOODFORDS -- In a classroom amid the dusty hills southeast of Lake Tahoe, an unlikely duo sit across from each other and conjugate the verb "to sleep." They are working in Washo, a language with, at best, an uncertain future.

"Elshim," to sleep. "Lelshimi," I am sleeping. "El- shimi," he is sleeping. "Shelshimi," they are sleeping.

On one side of a yellow plastic table sits Ramona Dick, a 74-year-old elder of the Washo tribe, a great-grandmother and retired cook whose formal education ended at the eighth grade but who has a deep knowledge of the American Indian language she learned as a child.

Facing her is Alan Yu, 30, a Hong Kong-born linguist who immigrated to California as a teenager, earned a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley and is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago.

Despite differences in age, culture and education, the two have bonded in a way that they hope will yield lasting results.

What brings them together is their mutual interest in Washo, a tongue that tribe members estimate is spoken fluently by 20 or 30 people. The big picture is even grimmer: Half of California's 100 American Indian languages don't have fluent speakers, and many of the rest have just five or six hanging on, experts say.

Attempts to document, if not revive, many of those languages have been going on for years. The goal is to preserve more than just conversation and literature. A vital part of cultural identity -- what it means, for example, to be a Washo -- slips away when a language becomes extinct.

Yu and Dick are part of newer efforts applying contemporary technology worldwide.

Last year, Yu was awarded a $160,000 federal grant to compile an online dictionary of 5,000 Washo words and phrases, complete with the digitally recorded pronunciations by Dick and other Washo elders.

Scheduled to be finished in 2009, the dictionary is designed partly as a tool to help younger Washos learn the language -- even if just a few words, such as "da'aw" (Lake Tahoe), "gewe" (coyote) and "gu'u" (maternal grandmother).

"It's going to be lost, I think, if nobody tries to teach them," Dick said of Washo, which had no written form until 20th-century scholars began transcribing it phonetically. "If the young people could learn, maybe they can tell their children down the line a bit that it's important to our tribe. Because we are not a very big tribe."

Washo (some spell it Washoe) leaders estimate there are about 1,500 tribal members, mainly in the eastern Sierra region on both sides of the border between California and Nevada. Dick lives in Woodfords, in an isolated Washo community known as "Hung-a-lel-ti" (Southern Washoes) on rolling ranchland with stunning mountain vistas. Its 350 or so residents can walk to the lime-green education center, where Yu and Dick meet, but must drive 10 miles north into Nevada for most shopping.

During his summer and vacation visits to the Washo towns, Yu said, he tries to avoid the Big Brother attitude that strained some past relationships between non-native researchers and American Indians. Yu, who spoke only Cantonese until he started elementary school, stressed that his goal is to document Washo, not to save it.

"I think the consensus these days is for a language to be revitalized," he said. "It's really a community effort. It's something that a outsider can't come in and force it onto people."

The Washos have a better chance at revitalization than many other tribes, scholars say. About 60 adults and teens attend several Washo-language classes, and teachers introduce Washo words and phrases to young children.

Yu said it "is a gift" to meet fluent -- and vibrant -- volunteers for the dictionary project such as Dick; her cousin, Steven James; and his cousin, Eleanore Smokey.

Nevertheless, everyone agrees it will be an uphill effort against assimilation and television. Another formidable obstacle: the education of many middle-age and elderly tribe members who were sent away from Washo-speaking homes to government boarding schools that discouraged the use of Washo.

Dick learned the language from a grandmother and great-grandmother, neither of whom had a full grasp of English. Dick said none of her five children, 18 grandchildren or seven great-grandchildren fluently speak Washo, though some are trying to learn and most understand when she speaks at home or at a class she is leading.

Lynda Shoshone, the tribe's language and cultural preservation coordinator, said she could "kick myself in the rear for not paying more attention" in her childhood when her grandmother spoke Washo.

Shoshone said she knows Washo words but has trouble putting sentences together. However, her 22-year-old son, she said, attended a now-defunct immersion school and is fluent. So, she said, the language has a shot at survival.

James, 74, is pessimistic. "There's too much competition from the present-day world," said James, a retired electrical construction worker from Dresslerville, Nev. "Everyday living, your job, just trying to survive in this world is difficult." Still, he and Dick are willing to spend long days, sometimes from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., answering Yu's detailed lists of questions. The elders' responses about nouns, adjectives, verbs and sentences are captured on a digital recording device, and Yu's graduate students later splice them and upload them online.

Yu has posted a preliminary Washo pronunciation guide at http://washo.uchicago.edu and has compiled about two-thirds of the words he needs before he makes the dictionary and its voicing technology available to the public late next year. That progress is "very impressive," according to Douglas Whalen, a program officer at the National Science Foundation's program known as Documenting Endangered Languages.

The program, which also involves the National Endowment for the Humanities, is funding Yu's dictionary and similar work in about 60 languages worldwide. "Language is part of our human heritage, it's part of what makes us human. Not having any record of what's gone on in a language is regrettable," Whalen said.