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Photo courtesy of Heather McGrew

Preserving Yokuts Languages: A Beautiful Complexity

Heather McGrew - cal_indians_languages_map 2015

Map courtesy of California Dept. of Parks & Rec

COARSEGOLD – At a time when indigenous languages are routinely threatened with extinction around the world, it’s reassuring to know that native speakers and cooperating scholars in this neighborhood are working together to preserve what precious words remain. One of those people is local educator Heather McGrew.

Achieving a personal milestone that is bound to impact history, Heather received her Master of Arts degree in Linguistics from California State University Fresno in the spring of 2015. A wife and mother of two boys, Heather graduated with distinction. She believes preservation of language is vitally important to the planet as a whole; meanwhile, her particular field of study is very locally focused.

“Chukchansi is a Yokuts language and is extremely complex in word formation and sentence structure,” Heather now explains. On introduction, she was instantly fascinated and eventually challenged to figure out precisely how Yokuts languages work. She’s equally passionate about language preservation and revitalization.

Heather McGrew - Family McGrew 2015

Tim, Heather, Charlie and Randall McGrew

“There are very, very few speakers left of Yokuts languages and without preservation they will be lost forever and the beautiful complexity will be gone as well.”

McGrew is the mom of two boys, age eight and ten, and partner in a two-teacher family: husband Tim works at Oak Creek Intermediate in Oakhurst. Heather holds a bachelor’s degree in art from Humboldt University and has a multiple subject teaching credential. She’s currently teaches a 3rd/4th grade combination class at Spring Valley Elementary in O’Neals.

Years ago, growing up in remote Northern California on the Trinity River, Heather attended High School at Hoopa Valley High School, located on the Hupa Reservation.

“I think my appreciation for the indigenous languages of the area stems from where I grew up and how I was raised,” she reflects. “There is something inside me telling me that this is really important, language preservation and revitalization. I almost look at it as a big puzzle that needs to be solved before it’s too late. There may be clues in the puzzle that aren’t even known about and are about to be lost forever. Diversity in languages is just as important and vital as eco-diversity in the world.”

Heather McGrew - with sons at graduation 2015

Heather with sons Randall , 8, and Charlie, 10

Heather’s job at the Enrichment Center ended with the closure of the school, and that’s when she decided to further pursue the study of linguistics. Considering a two-year, full time enrollment commitment, along with the commute to Fresno away from her family five days a week, Heather was torn, but she got to work.

“My bachelor’s degree in art met none of the prerequisites requirements for a linguistics degree, so I had to take the undergraduate courses as well. It also meant a financial commitment as I would not be able to work during school. Without the support of my husband and wonderful boys, it would have been impossible to complete the MA Linguistic program!”

In addition to maintaining a 4.0 grade point average at CSU Fresno, Heather was the Linguistics Arts and Humanities Dean’s Medal nominee and Linguistics Thesis of the Year nominee.

Her plan now is to submit her thesis to the International Journal of American Linguistics for publication, and continue her work along with Chris Golston CSU Fresno Professor of Linguistics and Martin Krämer, University of Tromsø Norway.

Heather McGrew long shot

Seeds from the cones of this pine are a food source. (Heather McGrew) Subject: tomooxish, object: tomooxisha winter, year.

“Yokuts languages are known worldwide in the Linguistic field as extremely complex. My thesis focuses on vowel deletion in word formation. In previous literature on Yokuts languages, including both Chukchansi and Wukchumni, the word formation is understood to be partially driven by inserting vowels, known as epenthesis.”

The vowel deletion theory presented in Heather’s thesis goes against a theory that has been understood to be correct since the 1940s, she says, as she works with the goal of finding small and distinct pieces of that larger puzzle.

“I am unsure where this knowledge will lead, but I will continue to learn about it and teach it to those interested. Language preservation and revitalization is a very difficult objective, but I want to contribute when and where I can and I look forward to the challenge.”

California Department of Parks and Recreation map

Heather McGrew Berry

Subject: ton’ object: toona nut, pine nut. sourberry Subject: taxaati’, object: taxaati’in. used to make cradle boards and food source (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)



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