Meet the IU team saving languages and lives with linguistics

A close-up shot of the letter K entry in the glossary from the book "Ann Pale Kreyol: An Introductory Course in Haitian Creole."
"Ann Pale Kreyol" is still one of the most widely used materials for English speakers to learn the Haitian language. It was first published by IU professor Albert Valdman in 1988. Photo by Joel Lustre, IU Foundation.

Linguists are in the business of studying language, scientifically.

Like anthropologists of the spoken word, they document and examine what we say, how we say it, and why. They use language to learn who we are and how we came to be that way.

“Harmless drudgery” was how one linguist described his work. But this humility undercuts the vital role of language to our human experience.

At a time when global interconnectedness is an imperative and experts estimate that a language dies every two weeks, could linguists be just the heroes we need?

Saving Lives

At Indiana University, a small team of collaborators has carved out a niche as experts in French dialects spoken outside of France–in particular Louisiana Creole, Louisiana French, and Haitian Creole.

How IU (as opposed to, say, Tulane or some other university in Louisiana) came to be the leader in these languages can be credited to Albert Valdman. Now a professor emeritus in IU’s Department of French and Italian, Valdman came to IU in the early 1960s.

In 1964, Valdman had a Haitian student in one of his classes, piquing his interest in the language that would come to define his career. The rest, as they say, is istwa (the Haitian Creole word for “history”).  That same year, Valdman founded the Creole Institute, which thrived for more than five decades, until its closing in May 2019.

In 1970, Valdman published his seminal work, Basic Course in Haitian Creole, followed by Ann Pale Kreyol: An Introductory Course in Haitian Creole in 1988, and the Haitian Creole-English Bilingual Dictionary in 2007.

A close up of the book "Ann Pale Kreyol: An Introductory Course in Haitian Creole" shows a sample conversation in Haitian.
An excerpt from “Ann Pale Kreyol: An Introductory Course in Haitian Creole.” Photo by Joel Lustre, IU Foundation.

To this day, these books are the most widely used learning materials for English speakers wishing to learn the Haitian language.

When Haiti experienced its most devastating natural disaster ever (a magnitude-7.0 earthquake) in January 2010, the IU-produced materials were so vital to aid workers that the Creole Institute could hardly keep up with the demand.

“The Ann Pale Kreyol book has travelled with me to Haiti many times, and the CD tracks are on my smartphone so that I may listen to them on an ongoing basis in my car, at the airport, and on a bunkbed at Hopital Bernard Mevs in Port au Prince,” wrote Dr. Brian Dickover in a 2016 letter to Valdman.

“Seeing someone realize that their doctor or nurse has taken the time to learn how to speak with them and to listen to the story of their health in their own language is remarkable. And for that I am so grateful to the Creole Institute.”

Saving Languages

In the half century since founding the Creole Institute, Valdman has continued his important work.

In 1998, Valdman teamed up with fellow IU professor Kevin Rottet, as well as two collaborators from universities in Louisiana, to publish the Dictionary of Louisiana Creole. Spoken by fewer than 7,000 people, Louisiana Creole is considered a critically endangered language. Experts wonder if it will survive even one more generation.

In 2009, Valdman’s team published the Dictionary of Louisiana French. Spoken by about 100,000 people, Louisiana French is considered an endangered language.

“From a linguistic perspective, anytime a language goes that is not adequately documented, you’re losing an important part of human intellectual property,” says Rottet. But thanks to the Creole Institute’s work, these languages are now in no danger of being lost to history.

For their next project, Valdman and Rottet are working with a team to write a compendium of about 700 Louisiana French words not used in standard French, or whose meaning differs between the two languages. Their work has been supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. By telling the story behind each unique term, they’re piecing together a broader story of the people who speak the language. There is also the ongoing work of updating existing resources to keep pace with the evolution of living languages.

In Rottet’s words, “A dictionary is never done, if the language is still being spoken.”

To support the life- and language-saving work of these IU linguists, make a gift to Indiana University’s Department of French and Italian.

Written By
Andrea Alumbaugh
A native Hoosier, Andrea Alumbaugh is a graduate of IU (BAJ’08) and a senior writer at the IU Foundation.