Recirculating and revitalizing words: Lexical legacies in Native American language preservation


  • Sean O'Neill
  • Saul Schwartz


While scholars often stress that language consists of much more than words, words may nevertheless be the most salient unit of analysis and action for speakers, learners, and other community members involved in language preservation. The prominence of words in metalinguistic awareness shapes how community members respond to language shift and can inform locally relevant goals and methods for language maintenance and revitalization. Developing previous research on the significance of words and names in Native America, we argue that words draw their importance from how they are used in social life as well as from the metalinguistic discourses and stories associated with them. In the Plains Apache, Hupa, and Ponca cases described here, words serve as markers of social relations, keys to historical experiences and worldviews, and signs of collective identity. Promoting the use and knowledge of words and their stories may be a more meaningful revitalization goal than increasing the number of fluent speakers in communities where members view their language primarily in terms of words and are concerned particularly about cultural fluency. Lexically-focused language revitalization activities also have the potential to give new relevance to legacy wordlists and texts.


Native AmericansIndiansmetalinguisticsocial relationsworldviewsstories
  • Year: 2021
  • Volume: 21
  • Page/Article: 199-228
  • DOI: 10.25894/ldd25
  • Published on 31 Dec 2021