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WSC Professor Catherine Rudin Awarded $348,000 Grant
to Preserve Omaha-Ponca Language

[updated 4-22-2008]

 

WAYNE, Neb. – Catherine Rudin, professor of languages and literature at Wayne State College, and Mark Awakuni-Swetland, assistant professor of anthropology at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, have been awarded a three-year, $348,800 grant to develop a digital dictionary of the Omaha-Ponca language. The grant is part of a joint National Science Foundation/National Endowment for the Humanities initiative, the "Documenting Endangered Languages" program. Work on the dictionary project begins fall semester 2008.

Omaha-Ponca is the language of the Omaha and Ponca tribes, still spoken by a few elders in Nebraska and Oklahoma. A Siouan language, it is distantly related to languages such as Lakota, Crow, Hochunk, and Hidatsa, and closely related to Osage, Kaw and Quapaw. There is no adequate dictionary or grammatical description of the language available. Numerous texts and a slip-file of about 20,000 words were collected in the 19th century, but this material is difficult to use: The slip file is handwritten, available only on microfilm or at the Smithsonian, and the published texts are long out of print and written in a spelling system that tribe members no longer use.

The dictionary project will start by entering the slip-file material into a computer database, putting the words into modern spelling, and adding grammatical information, complete translations, examples of usage, and cultural notes. More words will be added, including many words for things that did not exist in the 1800s. In later stages of the process, all entries will be checked with speakers of Omaha and Ponca to correct pronunciation and clarify any questions about the meaning and usage of each word, changes during the past century, and dialect differences between Omaha and Ponca. The dictionary will be made available online for linguists, tribe members and the public.

Dr. Rudin conducted field work on the Omaha language during the late 1980s and early 1990s, recording fluent speakers of the language and analyzing the grammatical structure of the language in a series of linguistic articles. Rudin's other scholarly interests are in the syntax (formal analysis of sentence structures) of Slavic and Balkan languages. She has published numerous articles and two books on Bulgarian.

 

She is an active member of the Linguistic Society of America, the Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages, the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas, and several other professional organizations. In addition, she serves as the associate editor for syntax of the Journal of Slavic Linguistics. Rudin is also an avid international folk dancer and performs and teaches Balkan singing and East European music and dance.

 

Dr. Awakuni-Swetland is an adopted member of the Omaha tribe who learned Omaha from his adopted grandmother. He has long been involved in preserving the language. He has produced curriculum materials for teaching the language, and has taught the Omaha language at UNL since 2000.

 

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