Sometimes Margaret Langdon gets calls at her office at UCSD, where she’s professor emeritus of linguistics, from strangers who tell her their offbeat theories about Indian languages. They’ll inform her, for example, that they have proof that the Japanese and American Indian languages are related. Or they’ll ask her if it isn’t true that the Indians are the lost tribe of Israel. Langdon tries to be polite.
Other times when they learn about her work, new acquaintances will blurt out that Indians don’t speak real languages at all. “They’ll tell me. They only grunt and groan,’ ’’ Langdon exclaims. “I’ve had academics—colleagues of mine in other fields— ask me questions along those lines.”
For the past 30 years, Langdon has devoted her life to studying the speech of one of the four Indian tribes native to San Diego County, the Kumeyaay, and she has demonstrated that various communities of them speak three different tongues — not dialects but separate, sophisticated languages. Langdon’s work has taught her more than the grammar and phonetics of these speech systems. It has taken her into the heart of the Kumeyaay culture. The knowledge she’s acquired has made her sensitive to the ignorance in the mainstream. But at the same time, Langdon understands that ignorance and forgives it. “Nobody’s born knowing,” she points out. “I had no idea either when I first came here.”
She started out with less awareness of Indians than the average American. Born 70 years ago in Belgium, she took college-prep classes during her teenage years when the Germans occupied her country, but she had no interest in the American West.
When the war ended, she’d had “a bit too much real life” to feel like starting university studies, so she took a series of jobs in Brussels. While working for the Belgian national airline, she was sent to New York, where she wound up getting married. Only after that marriage ended a few years later was she ready to continue her formal education. She moved to Berkeley, found work, and at the age of 33 was accepted as a student at the University of California’s campus. At first she says she wasn’t sure what to study. Then friends urged her to read Edward Sapir’s seminal work, Language. “I fell in love,” she breathes out the warm words.
As a linguistics major, she finished her undergraduate degree in three years, then entered the department’s graduate program in linguistics, again with no clear vision of her future. It was around this point that she began to hear the stories about the native Californians.
You could hardly avoid hearing them in Berkeley’s linguistics department in the early ’60s. The campus was then perhaps the most exciting center for American Indian studies in the country. A former student of Sapir named Mary Haas and two other Berkeley faculty in the 1950s had convinced the California state legislature to fund a survey of California Indian languages. This was a huge undertaking. At the time Father Serra founded his first mission in San Diego, more than 100 mutually unintelligible languages were spoken within what would later become the state boundaries, making California one of the most language-rich areas on earth. By the 1950s, many of those languages were no longer spoken, but 50 or so still survived. With the future of these tongues looking doubtful, graduate students from Berkeley, bolstered by the state money for travel, equipment, and other expenses, began fanning out to learn all they could.
Returning from their forays into the field, they brought with them tantalizing stories. Langdon says she heard these, wide-eyed. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God! This sounds interesting. But scary!’” When she approached Haas to ask if she might join the cadre of surveyors, Haas said, “There’s one language left about which we know almost nothing.”
“I’ll take it,” Langdon shot back.
So it was that in the spring of 1963 she headed for San Diego County with her sights set on Diegueño (the name by which the Kumeyaay language was then known). By then she had studied the “bits and scraps” that had been written about it: a few short word lists, one tiny article describing the phonetics of the language spoken on the Mesa Grande reservation near Santa Ysabel. “It at least gave me an inkling of the kinds of sounds the language might have,” Langdon says. “But there was nothing about the grammar. There were no texts. There was one very early book about the Indians of California in which somebody recorded the Lord’s Prayer in Diegueño.”
From such wisps of information, other linguists had declared that Diegueño had two dialects — one spoken in the northern part of San Diego County and the other spoken in the southern half and northern Baja. Langdon says she began her fieldwork assuming that this was correct.
To help her find a Diegueño teacher (or “consultant,” as linguists call their native-speaking sources), someone told Langdon to talk to a Point Loma resident by the name of Florence Shipek. Trained as an anthropologist before the war, Shipek had moved with her husband to San Diego in 1946 but had been unable to secure an academic position. Over the years, however, she had developed personal relationships with hundreds of local Indians — helping them fight for social services and at the same time studying their culture and ethnobotany.
Both Langdon and Shipek laugh today at the memory of their first meeting. “She put me through the third degree!” Langdon says. Shipek explains, “I had just had an extremely bad experience with a UCLA professor. He’d assured me that his class members were all very experienced graduate students.” He had promised he would pay for the help from any consultants to whom Shipek introduced him. Not only did he renege on that promise, but “there was a funeral of a murdered man that I went to,” Shipek says. “And here were these damn stupid so-and-sos [from UCLA] sticking a camera right in the open casket and wanting to tape the whole ceremony! I mean, you don’t do that in one of our churches, much less in an American Indian community. I just raised Cain with that professor! And the next thing you know, here comes Margaret.”
Shipek says she spent the whole day lecturing Langdon on how to behave. But she did suggest that an Indian elder named Ted Couro might help the newcomer.
Gathering her courage, Langdon tracked him down in Escondido, where he lived, and tried to explain her mission. “How do you communicate to a person from another culture what you want to do?” she asks today. The task can be daunting. “Some (native speakers) think it’s kind of nuts. And a lot of Indians don’t want outsiders coming in and learning their language.” Against the backdrop of Indian-white relations, this attitude makes sense, she contends. “They feel that all their problems started when the white men came — which is totally legitimate.” Langdon mentions the genocide that unfolded during the Gold Rush. “People would just go out and shoot Indians for sport! At the time it was perfectly okay and it was reported in newspapers from a self-righteous white man’s point of view.” Legions of other Indians were displaced from their land. “They were put on reservations. Their kids were sent to BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] schools where they were forbidden to speak their language and severely punished if they were caught. So it’s not too surprising that there would be resistance to an outsider coming in to ‘take’ their language.
“For us it’s a very difficult thing to understand. We learn French. We learn German. Nobody objects to that. But from many Indians’ perspective, it was yet one more thing that they were asked to relinquish.”
In Couro, as it turned out, Langdon detected no such resistance. In his 60s, Couro was pleased by Langdon’s offer to pay him (a dollar per hour) for his tutoring. And his outlook was cosmopolitan, according to Langdon. “He was not what you would call a really educated man, but he was very smart He had become a preacher for the Church of the Nazarene, and he ran a little congregation which had a little church on the La Jolla reservation [a community of Luiseños — one of the three other tribes of Indians native to San Diego County].” Couro spoke Diegueño, English, and Spanish; indeed, he preached in all three, plus he had worked as a missionary along the Colorado River with the Yuma Indians and had learned something about their language. Langdon’s enterprise intrigued and pleased him, though he warned her, “We’ll be through with this in no time because my language only has 200 words.”
“I was sort of dumbfounded,” Langdon recalls. “But I said, ‘Well, let’s try it anyway.’ ” She moved into a little cottage not tar from Couro and began making daily visits. “You start by asking people how to say various words. I’d go and spend several hours a day with him, putting words on little slips so I could sort them out. I would bring my little box with me, and after about three weeks, he asked, ‘How many words do you think we’ve got there?’ I made a quick count and said, ‘Oh, about 1000.’And he said, ‘Ah, we haven’t really started yet.’”
Langdon says she didn’t remind him of his earlier comment. It stuck with her, however, as an illustration of the way in which white misconceptions of Indians can shape the thinking of Indians themselves. The notion that Native American vocabularies are meager is prevalent among non-Indians, Langdon says. “Where it comes from I don’t know. But Ted had heard some white person say it, and though he knew intellectually that it wasn’t true, he just repeated it.”
As she plunged into her studies with him, Langdon had no written material to aid her. She says no American Indians ever developed a writing system, with two exceptions. A Cherokee named Sequoyah got the idea of writing by watching white people read, and in 1819 he devised his own syllabary. Several generations of Cherokees learned it, and a newspaper based on it was published as early as 1828.
Apart from that, however, “The only genuine writing system — as opposed to pictures that depict events — in all of the Americas is the Mayan hieroglyphics,” Langdon states. “Writing has actually developed independently in very few places in all the world, and then it has spread.”
Her first challenge as she began with Couro was thus to devise an orthographic system for capturing the sounds of Diegueño in writing. Langdon says this process begins with the linguist writing down all the fine details of the language's sounds, as they’re found in individual words. Consider the letter p as used in English. In practice, English speakers employ this letter to depict three separate sounds. “When a p comes at the beginning of a word, as in ‘Peter,’ it has a little puff of air after it,” Langdon points out. Linguists call this an “aspirated stop” and denote it by using a p with a little h over it. If a p in English follows the letter s—as in spot — the ghostly h sound never follows it. We say “spit,” not “sp[h]it.” Finally, if a p comes at the end of a word, it might barely be pronounced at all, or it might be enunciated like the p after s. Langdon says that as the linguist listens to more and more words in any language, sound patterns emerge, and rules can be devised that enable one to write several related sounds using only one letter (since the rules tell you which sound is intended, depending on the position in the word). “But it can take quite a while before you get the system figured out.”
Langdon says she took a tape recorder to her sessions with Couro and had him repeat the words of the day twice. “And then I would take it back with me and sit and listen and listen and listen and listen and try to repeat them myself.” Some of the sounds she heard can be found in English. But some are totally alien — rare among all the languages of the world, Langdon points out. For example, not only do the Kumeyaay have two l sounds — an l and a ly (as in “million”), they have two other corresponding l sounds that are “voiceless.” Try blending the sounds of sh and l, or worse, sh and ly, and you’re only partway to understanding how oddly they strike the ears of an English speaker.
Despite such challenges, Langdon eventually worked out a system for capturing Diegueño on paper. “The next step is to make sentences,” she says. “Things get sort of hairy then. Because you reach this point where you think you understand the sound system, but when you start asking for sentences, new things come in that you’ve never heard before!” Langdon says she would ask Couro to slow down and repeat the baffling passages. But then the mystery sounds would disappear. “Because — it turned out — if he said them real slow, what he would do was to say them word by word. And when you do that, you tend to leave out the significant endings. It drove me crazy, absolutely crazy!”
Another challenge was determining where one word ended and another began. Langdon had gotten used to the fact that most Diegueño words have their accent on the last syllable. “For example, the word Kumeyaay is pronounced KumeYAAY, not KUmeyaay,” she points out. “Chief” is “kwaayPAAY,” “frog” is “hanTAK,” and so on.
But the language also routinely conjoins nouns with various grammatical markers. “Kumeyaay” when it’s the subject of a sentence becomes “Kumeyaayvech” — but the accent doesn’t shift when this happens. (The word is pronounced KumeYAAYvech, not KumeyaayVECH.) This confused her, as she struggled to discern in the verbal stew the boundaries of individual words. Harder still was figuring out where one sentence ended and another began. A single word in Kumeyaay, as it turns out, can be a sentence. Adding the prefix my (signifying “I [do something to] you”), for example, to the verb for “to see” ewuuw, makes the word nyewuuw the English equivalent of “I see you.” Verbs also can be strung together with special endings to indicate that the subject of the first is either the same as or different from the following.
So to say something like “A mountain lion saw a raccoon, the mountain lion followed him, and the raccoon ran off,” all you have to utter in Kumeyaay is Nyemetaay nemas ewuuw-ch, akewii-m, sekann.
Langdon points out that Kumeyaay sentences thus are often much shorter than English ones, even though they contain the same amount of information.
The normal word order of those sentences also differs from English, Langdon says. “The order is subject/object/ verb. The verb’s always at the end. Which [the Indians] are very conscious of. They always say to me, ‘You know, our language is backwards.’ And I say, ‘What do you mean your language is backwards? Maybe English is.’ In fact, the largest number of languages of the world have the verb in final position.... And they laugh and laugh and think it’s really funny. You see, only a linguist would say that.”
For all the maddening aspects of her initial study, Langdon found much in Diegueño to enchant her. Its verb roots can be transformed to take on related meanings. The verb root for “to cut,” for instance, katt, can be coupled with various “instrumental prefixes” to create words signifying “to bite off’ (chuukatt), “to cut into chunks” (tuukatt), “to break off with fork or by hand” (shuukatt), and so forth. “You can see the connections between all these things,” Langdon says. “And you don’t have to say a bunch of extra words such as ‘I cut it with a knife.’ You just say aakatt. ”
In the realm of nouns, Langdon was struck by the lack of equivalencies between English and Diegueño. “There are words that are more general, and there are words that are less general,” she says. “Like, there is no generic word for ‘rabbit.’ You have a word for a jackrabbit, a cottontail, and a brush rabbit ’Cause they’re very distinctive-looking things, as I’ve learned — though they are all just rabbits to me!” It’s the same with trees, Langdon says. No word means “oak” in general, but there are terms for all the oak varieties, of which at least six can be found in San Diego County. It’s true that English has both the generic term and more technical and specific words, but the ordinary English speaker doesn’t know the latter, Langdon says, whereas “every Indian in San Diego County knows unerringly all the different kinds of oaks.”
The Kumeyaay kinship system is organized in a different manner from Anglo society. “So you have different words for ‘older brother’ and ‘younger brother.’ Different words for ‘older sister’ and ‘younger sister.’ Different words for the relative of your mother as opposed to the relative to your father — because they have very different social functions. One of my favorite kinship terms is uuhuu, which describes the relationship between the two sets of parents of a married couple. So you don’t have to say complicated things like ‘my daughter’s husband’s parents.’ You just say uuhuu"
On the other hand, “There are things that you would think need to be differentiated but aren’t [in Diegueño]. Like the word emat can mean ‘place’ or ground’ or ‘earth’ or ‘mud’ — all these things. And if you want to describe those other things, you have to make a longer descriptive term.” The same word is used to refer to what the English speaker would call “arm” or “hand” or “finger.” “But,” Ungdon adds, “there’s a special expression for the space between the fingers. Very useful thing. We don’t have a word for that.”
As the slips of paper in her index box proliferated, they included many words with obvious Spanish origins. “The Spanish were the first contact,” she says, “and they came with a lot of new cultural items that weren’t there before. So the Indians adopted the Spanish names, with some changes.” The Diegueño word for “door,” for example, is lapwerrt (from the Spanish la puerta). “They incorporate the article because in Spanish you always have to have an article,” Langdon explains, “Then they always leave the end off because of the accent pattern of Diegueño. But they had no word of their own for door. They had structures with openings in the front that you might cover with something. But they didn’t have a word for the kind of door that we have now. And there are tons of words like this. They’ve even borrowed some verbs, which is fairly rare. Like trabajar. One variation has it as ‘truHAR.’ It means ‘to work.’”
Langdon says Anglos tend to hear this and respond, “Oh well, they didn’t have a concept of work.” The professor retorts, “They didn’t have a concept of work for wages. They had a concept of doing things. Of being importantly occupied. But not the concept of work for money. So that’s why the word for work is usually borrowed from someplace else in all American Indian languages.”
In addition to working with Couro, Langdon also began to meet and collect words from other local Indians, often in the company of Shipek (who became a cherished friend). Some outings led to adventures that rivaled those Langdon had heard about in the hallways back at Berkeley. Shipek, for instance, tells of the time she invited Lang-don on a weeklong visit to the Baja Indian community of San Jose de la Zorra (northeast of Ensenada). “We got there and set up camp, and pretty soon a family wandered over. So we asked them to eat with us. And then another came and another.” Shipek and Langdon began offering some of the children nickels to bring back armloads of firewood. “Margaret and I really cooked that night. Pretty soon we fed the whole village.” They also learned that a drought had destroyed all the crops. “People were starving,” Shipek says. “The next morning when we looked at our supplies, I said, ‘Margaret, if we feed breakfast to everybody, we’ve got to leave before noon!’ So we fed them and thanked them all and did a couple of quick introductions, and then we left!” (Shipek adds that Indians in San Diego County, though poor themselves, later raised money to help their Mexican cousins survive until the rains arrived.)
After three months, Langdon returned to Berkeley and her classroom studies. But she came back to San Diego in the spring of 1964 to grapple further with a daunting problem. Based on the other authorities’ declaration that Diegueño had two dialects, Langdon says what she had expected when she first began her fieldwork were “differences somewhat like those between, say, educated dialects of New York City versus California.” So she was “totally unprepared” for what she found. “It turned out that in fact, every reservation had its own dialect. In fact, no two people spoke exactly alike anyway, because there weren’t that many speakers. I was totally thrown aback. I thought, ‘My God, what do I do now?’ ”
As she returned to Berkeley, she also had reason to rethink her future. During her second stay in San Diego County, she had met and married a man named Dick Langdon. A plumber by trade, he had bought two acres of land in Encanto where he planned to raise exotic fruit trees. “It was very clear he wasn’t going to move,” she recalls, so Margaret started job-hunting, beginning at San Diego State. There, she says, it was obvious “that women faculty members were not something they were interested in.” Several junior colleges would have hired her but couldn’t because she lacked a teaching credential. She was astonished, therefore, to get a call inviting her to join the faculty of the University of California campus that was about to open in La Jolla. The chairman of its incipient linguistics department had called Berkeley in search of an Americanist, heard about her, and offered her the job sight unseen. “It was just incredible,” Lang-don reminisces today. “A big miracle as for as I was concerned. Most people are lucky to have a job, but their fieldwork is at the other end of the country. And here I was — I had this whole area!”
In September of 1965, she started work as an acting assistant professor. With few students and a light teaching load, she worked on her doctoral dissertation, having decided to declare in it that Diegueño was composed of not two but three separate dialects: one predominant in the North County, another in the south, and a third in the northern part of Baja.
She also continued making forays into the various Diegueño communities, accompanied by her new husband. “He’s a wonderful icebreaker,” Langdon says today with affection. “His mother was Chinese, and he also had a Cherokee great-grandmother. He is very good with his hands and has a wonderful sense of direction in the backcountry, which I lack. He also gets along well with rural folks. So he’d come in there, and they’d all want to know what kind of Indian he is.”
That’s not surprising, Langdon indicates. Nowadays “the Indians of California are essentially indistinguishable from (surrounding) populations,” she says. “They often are taken for Mexicans, which they resent fiercely. And yet [Anglos] have these expectations that they can go to [a San Diego County] Indian reservation and see people dressed in native costumes, which they’re not! All you see are little houses and cows grazing in the fields, and there might be a building that’s called the tribal hall, which doesn’t look much different from some kind of a local hall. And then people say, ‘Where are the Indians?’
“Even in their full regalia, they’re not as dramatic as the plains Indians, with all their feathers and the leather and so on,” she continues. Unlike the huge populations of tribes like the Sioux or the Navajo, California Indians always lived in very small groups. They were hunters and gatherers, a fact that prompted early settlers to dub them “digger Indians.” Explains Langdon, “They would dig for edible roots. But the name acquired a very derogatory meaning: that they were savages grubbing around in the dirt. And this stuck for a long time.”
Rather than their clothing or artifacts, the most interesting thing about California’s Indians is “the culture and the traditions and the stories and the spiritual values that they have,” Langdon says. “And that’s not as dramatic. For one thing, it’s not easy to get at. They don’t share it readily.”
She says, “When I think of my own first exposure, there were lots of very, very difficult moments.... One thing is that in our culture, social interaction depends on talking. All the time. But when you walk into an Indian community, it’s not that they don’t talk, but there are long periods where nobody says anything. Where nothing happens. And I found that excruciatingly difficult! At first I didn’t know whether it was because I was there or whatever. But no. That’s sort of the way it is.
“Or I did things like make an appointment with somebody on the reservation and then show up to find that nobody was there. And I’d sit and wait and wait and wait.” She had run up against the concept of “Indian Time,” Langdon says. “You may have heard about that. Indian time is not our time. They don’t go by the clock; things happen when it’s time for them to happen. You say, ‘Can I come at 11 o’clock?’ ‘Sure,’ they say. You show up at 11 and nobody’s there. You finally catch up with them the next week and before you have a chance to say anything, they say, ‘Oh, we were looking for you on Tuesday!’
“That took a long time for me to get over. Now I find it incredibly relaxing. You just go there and there’s people hanging around and doing whatever they do. And if you know them, you may exchange a few words and then you sit around.” If it’s a formal social event, “after a while, somebody will get up and start singing. They sing for a while and then they stop.” Once the songs in these communities were extraordinarily elaborate, Langdon says. “They had song cycles that went on literally for days. Some singers specialized in bird songs, others specialized in lightning songs, and so on. I’ve never heard a full one. People don’t have time, and they’ve lost some of the pieces.” But singing is still “something that’s very important to them,” Langdon says. “Singers are highly prized. They get paid to perform. And young people get apprenticed to be singers. I have seen them! Kids who were just learning to sing when I first came here are now the lead singers on the reservation.”
It’s not something you can witness once and understand. “You look and you say, 'When is something going to happen?’ I used to do that too, but that’s not the way it works. And yet once you do get into it, the songs are very haunting. And you do what they call dancing. You have a whole bunch of singers, and the audience is facing them, and all you ever do is sort of shuffle back and forth. But somehow when you’re in it and you do that, it’s just great. It’s very hard to describe, but there’s something so meaningful about just doing that.”
Back on the UCSD campus, liingdon’s academic responsibilities grew along with the enrollment of the fledgling university. She also maintained her warm friendship with Couro, and in the late ’60s, those two strands of her life came together again. “This was the beginning of the period where there was a renewal of interest on the part of Indians in their identity. And there were sympathetic administrations in Washington. There was money.” Locally these influences prompted Palomar Community College to ask Couro to teach a class in Diegueño to night school students. “He accepted with glee,” says Langdon. “For him, it was tailor-made.”
Couro in turn asked for her assistance. “All I would do is write on the board, because his eyesight was failing by then,” Langdon says. The class consisted of maybe 20 individuals —some Indians, some interested whites. Before long, Langdon also began bringing some of her graduate students to the sessions. “It was so much fun you can’t believe it!” she recalls today. “That’s when I saw Ted’s absolute native instinct for teaching. He got everybody involved somehow.”
Langdon and her students eventually worked together with Couro to put many of the lessons from his class into a 262-page book. Published in 1975, it contains all the standard fixtures of any language text — vocabulary lists, simple dialogues, exercises — but it’s also studded with nuggets of Couro’s charm: translations of songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” stories, poems, and silly cartoons in Diegueño.
Other work pursued by Langdon’s graduate students ran along more conventional lines, with the students seeking out Indians in various parts of San Diego County and Baja and studying their language. As data from these efforts accumulated, Langdon says she began to feel more and more uneasy about her earlier declaration that Diegueño was one language with three dialects. She says her misgivings came to a head in the late 1980s, when a graduate student named Amy Miller began working with two sisters from Jamul. “She started coming back and showing me things I’d never heard before!” Langdon says. Not only were there vocabulary differences, but also “definite grammatical differences that contradict wildly some of the things I’d said.” The cumulative evidence was so strong, Langdon says, that in 1990 she published a paper repudiating her previous position and instead contending that “there are linguistic and nonlinguistic reasons for recognizing at least three Diegueño languages.”
Langdon sighs and says that the hardest thing to explain to non-linguists is why distinguishing between dialects and languages should be such a problem. “I mean, everybody thinks a language is a language and a dialect is a dialect. So what’s the big deal? But the problem is that when you are in an area where languages are closely related, it’s hard to establish boundaries. These are concepts that are very tricky.”
Mutual intelligibility is something people often cite as a criterion for distinguishing one from the other, Langdon states, “But that’s far from infallible.” She says studies have found that speakers of one language may understand the other — but not vice versa. This has to do not so much with linguistics as with social factors, she says. “For example, the people who speak the less prestigious variant are sort of forced to understand and interact with [their social superiors), but the people who speak the prestige dialect won’t be caught dead paying attention to the way the others speak. And so they can’t understand them.”
Mutual intelligibility also can be a relative thing. Langdon recalls one trip to Baja with a group of Campo Indians. “We went to La Huerta. And then from there we were going to go to Santa Catarina, which is in a different language area entirely.” Both the Campo Indians and the a Huerta Indians spoke what was then called Diegueño, and Langdon says upon the arrival of the visitors to La Huerta, “They went through their traditional polite exchanges where the visitors come up and greet the chief.” The leading member of the Campo group reciprocated by making a big speech “saying essentially, ‘We’re glad to be here, and we respect your country, and we come as friends.’ And you had this feeling that everybody understood everybody.” Yet when the time came for one group to give the other directions on how to get to Santa Catarina, everyone lapsed into Spanish. “You see, in the speeches, they were engaging in a polite interchange and everything was friendly and it didn’t matter if you didn’t understand every word.” But as the subject matter became more precise, the extent of the mutual intelligibility became significant.
In practice, many languages have long been accepted as separate and distinct even though they are mutually intelligible, Langdon adds. “I come from an area that’s a perfect example. In Belgium, they speak both French and Flemish, which are from two different language families. Flemish is actually a dialect of Dutch, linguistically speaking. But because of the political boundaries, they call one Dutch and the other Flemish, which is fine. There are differences. But they’re totally mutually intelligible. In addition, Dutch and German sort of merge into each other. My mother was from the eastern part of Belgium, which abuts Germany, and her Flemish dialect had very strong German characteristics. There you take the political boundaries, and you call one Flemish and the other one German. But that’s not linguistically meaningful.”
Langdon says that to linguists, the term “dialect” does have a technical meaning, but to lay people its primary connotation is negative. “It means you don’t speak right. That your speech is substandard.” She says she noticed after a while that when white people talk about what Indians speak, the use of “Indian dialects” is commonplace. “And that’s derogatory. It implies that these people don’t speak a real language.”
Over the years, Langdon says she also realized that some of her academic colleagues were less than excited when Langdon’s students wanted to study what were thought to be mere variations on a theme that Langdon herself had already plumbed to some depth. “They would say, ‘Oh well, we already know what we need to know.’ Whereas if the literature says there are three languages, then there is more of an incentive for somebody to come and actually study them.” Langdon admits that this in part influenced her decision to publish her 1990 declaration of the independence of the three Kumeyaay languages. But she maintains that she also had unassailable linguistic arguments. “There are more differences between [the three ]— differences in vocabulary, the rules of the sound system, grammar —than there are between Mojave, Yuma, and Maricopa,” she says. “And there is no doubt that [the latter] are different languages. Nobody questions that.”
In that 1990 paper, Langdon dubbed the language spoken in the northern part of the county (including Mesa Grande, Santa Ysabel, and Barona) lipay from the word for “Indian" or “person.” To the southern language (spoken roughly in Jamul and the Baja communities), she give the name Tiipay (the southern variant of lipay). The language of the central and eastern areas, she called Kumeyaay. This is a little confusing, she acknowledges, as many speakers of all three languages had come to refer to themselves as Kumeyaay. (Diegueño, a Spanish word derived from the name of the San Diego mission, was “a total misnomer because only a very small part of the so-called Diegueño were ever missionized,” Langdon says.)
Given the amount of time that Langdon has devoted to the Kumeyaay languages and her level of sophistication in analyzing them, it comes as a bit of a jolt to hear her insistence that she herself doesn’t speak lipay, Tiipay, or Kumeyaay. “I can make little sentences. on demand,” she says. “But when people get together and speak normally, I recognize words, but I really don’t understand. Even today I can’t do that.” Had fluency been her aim (rather than understanding of the language from a linguistic perspective), “I would have moved into the community and tried to speak the language. But that wouldn’t have been all that easy here because there are essentially no households where the language is the home language anymore.” How many speakers of the three Kumeyaay languages do remain? The question makes Langdon squirm. What pressed, she’ll say she doubts there are more than 50 people left in San Diego County who can still speak one of the three languages. But in the same breath she’ll say she really doesn’t know. “You can’t do a census because people aren’t going to tell you,” she says. “I have tried.” She says you go into a community and ask one person to tell you who still speaks the language, and they’ll say that no one does. “You ask another person, and they’ll say, ‘Well, there’s so-and-so and so-and-so, but they don’t speak right. They mix with Spanish.’ Well, of course they do. Or I’ll hear, ‘They have wrong words.’ We have wrong words too. That doesn’t stop us from speaking English.”
Further complicating any census effort is the fact that some Indians don’t want to admit their language prowess, according to Langdon. She explains, “The strategy of the United States government has always been to integrate Indians into the white man’s world, and languages are an obstruction. They’ve taken Indian kids and sent them to schools far away from home—where they only came home once a year or something. When they got to these schools, they put Indians from all different tribes together and they were forbidden to speak their languages.
“So when these people who had been in these schools and had been subjected to this awful stuff grew up and had kids of their own, they decided it was not a good idea to teach their kids the Indian language. Because their kids were going to suffer. And now, in a more enlightened age, some of those kids are castigating their parents for not teaching them the language. That generation [of parents] is in a terrible bind. They were doing the best thing for their kids, and now their kids are saying to them, ‘You deprived us of our linguistic heritage.’ Meanwhile, some of the very old people say things like, ‘Well, you know, they don’t want to learn. We’re not going to teach them.’ And as a result, the languages are dying.” Langdon says that in some California Indian communities, “glorious efforts” are being made to reverse that process. One of her former students, La Jolla native Leanne Hinton, who’s now a professor in Berkeley’s linguistics department, works as the “linguistic mentor” for something called the Master Apprentice Program. It brings Indian elders together with younger adults who are motivated to learn the elders’ language. Each pair signs a contract to spend about 20 hours a week together, communicating only in the native tongue.
Langdon says no one is doing this yet in San Diego County. She says she’s tried to get the program established here. “I tell them. I send them the literature. But so far nothing has happened. I don’t know quite why it hasn’t. There are enough speakers who, with the proper support, might consider doing it. What I don’t see is younger adults who are motivated enough.”
From time to time, classes continue to be offered on one or another of the reservations, and Langdon says she sometimes acts as a consultant to these. Since her retirement five years ago, she has continued to work on a huge project: a comparative dictionary of at least ten languages of the Yuman family (which includes the languages of the Pai peoples, three Colorado River tribes, the Cocopa, and the Kiliwa, in addition to the Kumeyaay languages). Documentation for the dictionary forms a tower on the desk of her home in Encanto, where her husband Dick still tends his exotic orchard (mostly temperamental litchi trees). Langdon says they continue to go to funerals and fiestas and other gatherings among the local Indians.
Today Langdon’s head of short, blunt-cut hair is shaded gray and white. She wears glasses with pink plastic frames. But her figure is trim, she moves with alacrity, and her hands are those of a young woman, smooth and spotless. Nonetheless she says the local Indians now treat her as an elder — something she appreciates. “They make me sit at the table first, and they serve me first, and they do all these things! People often say to me, ‘Oh, you used to work with my uncle or somebody.’ And that’s a nice feeling. In our society, I go to campus, I do my thing, but I’m retired and nobody really pays any attention to me. It’s nice to be plugged into a community.”
With the weariness of an elder, Langdon confesses that she doesn’t harbor much hope for the survival of Kumeyaay or any California Indian languages. “This has been my bread and butter,” she says. “So I would love for these languages to survive. But my feeling is it’s sort of too late. When you get below a certain number of people, when you get below an actual community, a group where everybody speaks the language, I don’t think you’re going to produce speakers, really, no matter what you do.” She says she can empathize with the pressures that cause people to abandon their native tongues. Her own first language was Flemish, but when she was four her family moved to French-speaking Brussels, and there she announced she was abandoning her old ways of talking in favor of French.
Even now her English is colored with French sounds. But she says over the years she has come to speak French only haltingly. “I understand it. I can read it. But I speak it very, very rarely— precisely because I don’t feel comfortable. I think in English and then I’ll translate my thought, and I hate that because that doesn’t come out as real French.”
The more successful the local Indians become with enterprises such as their casinos, “the less they’re going to use their languages,” she says. “Because they go to school, they go to college, and being very good at English is obviously terribly important.” They’ll continue to retain remnants of the language of their grandparents. “Like a lot of people here who are from Europe. They know a few words. But they can’t truly speak.” The big difference between such European descendants and the Indians today, Langdon says, “is that if you’re from Poland, and you come here, and you stop speaking Polish, they still speak Polish in Poland. Whereas when an Indian language is gone, it’s gone. Forever.”
Every time such a language dies, “It’s a whole world that’s gone. The language people speak is an integral part of the way they feel about the world and the way they conceive things. When that’s gone, that’s very sad.”