Indigenous American languages exhibit such a range of linguistic characteristics that pre-colonial American tongues can be viewed as a microcosm for all the world's languages.
The Inuit and Athabaskan languages, for example, are polysynthetic. Consequently, "Anti-disestablishmentarianism" would be considered an everyday word in this language family, which features complex compounding, says Rudes. Athabaskan languages, such as Navajo and Apachee and Cherokee, utilize pitch accent -- different patterns of raising and lowering the pitch can change the meaning of a word. Mohawk, Seneca and other Iroquoian languages are non-configurational, like Latin or Russian, in which the subject, object and verb do not follow a strict order.
Catawba, a subject-object-verb configurational language ("I saw the house" would be said "I the house saw"), is most similar in structure to English.
Over 18,000 members of the Catawba Nation spanned the Carolinas from the Appalachian Mountains to the Low Country before Spanish colonization in the 16th century. As a result of disease and warfare with the English settlers, remnants of the Esaw, Congaree, Eno, Wateree, Kussoe, Natchez, and Yamasee communities, as well as some Waccamaws, Pee Dees, and Cheraws, moved to the Catawba River valley and merged with the local Esaw and Catawba people during the 18th century. The convergence of tribes into the modern day Catawba Indian Nation had an unknown effect on the language.
In the 19th century, however, it wasn't just their language that was in jeopardy, but their survival as a whole. All 17 men in the Catawba Nation enlisted on the Confederate side, nine died and only two returned to Rock Hill able to work. In 1880, corresponding with the first Mormon mission (many Catawba are still Mormon today), the first comprehensive word list of the language was recorded.
The assimilation policy the federal government pursued in the 20th century is a major reason Catawba and other indigenous languages declined. Fred Sanders, a WWII veteran who is a young 81, grew up on the reservation in the 1930s when the tribe still had a medicine man deriving remedies from the land. Three of Sanders' sisters went to a Cherokee boarding school in the Appalachian Mountains where anyone caught speaking a native language was beaten. In the 1950s a federal relocation program offered to set up American Indians in cities with an apartment and a job and even threw them a stipend if they would leave reservations and join mainstream America.
Assimilation was so ingrained into the Indian mentality that Anna Brown, the great-granddaughter of the last native speaker Sallie Brown, wasn't even told she was an Indian until she was eight years old. She remembers begging her mother to take her over the mountains to see the Cherokee Indians. After two years of nagging, her mother finally said, "You want to see an Indian? Look in a mirror."
When scholarship spiked in the 1930s and 1940s, the language had lost a good amount of its diction. Linguists did not have the fortune of discovering long written narratives, stories or recordings of spiritual beliefs. "There are whole areas of behavior that we don't have the vocabulary for," says Rudes. What did survive was the more practical vocabulary.
Many of the first transcribers lacked proper linguistic training, and their subjects didn't hold a perfect command of the language. Frank Speck, a linguist who worked with the Catawba in the 1930s, described two of the Catawba speakers, Margaret Wiley Brown and her daughter Sallie Brown, as "women of unusually low intelligence." Another Catawba, Ms. Owl, "was handicapped from the Ethnological angle of estimate by extreme religious prejudices." As a result, linguists had the challenge of translating Catawba into what Rudes calls "South Carolina redneck" and then a second time into proper English.
Rudes has copies of all these translations in 20 thick black binders in his study at home. For example the phrase "nasyahá:re" (pronounced nuh-shuh-HAH-reh) was translated into "I ain't afraid of nothing," which was further cleaned up to: "I'm not afraid." A high level of phonemic variation emerged among the linguists. The words "dove" and "chicken" for instance were recorded by four different linguists with four different sets of vowels. Other words were documented with voiced stops or pauses in some cases, and without them in others.
Seibert, known as a perfectionist, never published a complete analysis of the Catawba grammar due to the uncertainty of some aspects. Other than the variation of individual words, Seibert had doubts over the status of certain sounds that were in the process of evolving (the "m" and "n" sounds, for example, were undergoing a nasalization to become "b" and "d" sounds). Rudes was able to parse out Seibert's ambiguities and document some of the reasoning that Seibert left out of his grammatical analysis. Rudes' grammatical analysis is pending publication with the University of South Carolina Press. He has started work on a Catawba dictionary that he hopes to complete in a couple of years.