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Flutes of Fire: Essays on California Indian Languages by Leanne Hinton

1994; 270 pp. $18. Heyday Books.

It is because Coyote interrupted Mouse's music of fire and flute that we have 6,000 languages in the world, rather than one. Coyote did well. However, all but a few hundred of the world's languages are now to some extent endangered, and each fortnight sees the extinction of at least one language. This book is about the efforts of California Indian people to reverse the seemingly inexorable process of indigenous language loss. It is about the occasional triumphs achieved against unbelievable odds; about the structures and vocabularies and special features of some of the fifty languages native to California; about aspects of California history in relation to indigenous languages; and about specific methods for keeping languages alive.

Leanne Hinton is one of our foremost workers on behalf of indigenous languages. She has spent more than a quarter of a century working with Native American communities in California and Arizona as an educator of extraordinary vision into the issues and methods of language maintenance and revitalization.

We are at a late hour now, when a principal concern of both linguists and indigenous communities is the condition of once strong and vital linguistic traditions, now seriously endangered. It would profit all Californians to read this book. For champions of indigenous language everywhere, it is a source of great inspiration and encouragement.


" To the English speaker, one of the most amazing aspects of the grammar of most California languages is how much can be said in a single word. Verbs, especially, through processes of affixation, are incredibly rich in meaning....For example, in Yana, directionals are obligatory on verbs of motion. One cannot simply say that someone is "going" without saying which direction he or she is going in. So in Yahi (Ishi's language, a variety of Yana), there is a full set of suffixes that go on verbs of motion, one set for going in a cardinal direction, and another for coming from a cardinal direction."

" In modern times, Native American languages also show differences between the sexes due to historical events. For example, among the Havasupais in Arizona in the 1970s, the language was changing rapidly under influence from English, but the women tended to speak more conservatively than the men, using older speech forms and fewer English loan words. This may reflect the fact that men left home more often, to get work, and thus spoke more English, while women tended to stay home, retaining greater ties to their older relatives (who spoke the older way) and speaking more Havasupai."