Iroquois Linguistics Certificate at Syracuse University Comes at Important Time for Native Languages

Syracuse University will offer a new program in Iroquois linguistics this fall semester.

The Native American Studies Program in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences has launched the Certificate in Iroquois Linguistics for Language Learners. This new undergraduate program targets students and teachers of Iroquois languages, and is designed to bolster Iroquois language revitalization efforts, according to a university news release.

“There are 18 Iroquois language-speaking communities throughout northeastern North America, each of which boasts multiple language revitalization programs,” said Philip Arnold, associate professor of religion and interim director of the Native American Studies Program. He said the need for Iroquois language teachers is critical. “Traditionally, the language teacher was drawn from one of the elder Native speakers of each community. But as elder speakers have passed away and younger people are primarily speaking English, the survival of these languages has become more and more critical.”

The program is unique across the country in that it will focus on teaching about linguistics and linguistics systems specific to the six languages of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. “So it’s not specifically focused on learning Mohawk, for example, but people interested in learning or teaching Mohawk will benefit from understanding the linguistics,” Arnold said. “Since most of the teachers in these revitalization programs are second-language speakers, there’s a demand for linguistics courses in which learners and teachers can learn the concepts and terminology to make better use of dictionaries and descriptive grammars written by linguists.”

The course will be taught by Dr. Percy Abrams, an Onondaga Eel Clan member and executive director of the Iroquois Nationals, winners of the bronze medal at the Federation of International Lacrosse U19 World Championships in Finland this summer. Abramssays one of the biggest hurdles for second-language speakers is Iroquois verb structure. “Second-language speakers may acquire some idea about Iroquois grammar, based on what they know about English grammar, but in the case of Iroquois languages, most of what they know does not apply,” says Abrams, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from SUNY Buffalo. “While native speakers acquire these grammatical systems naturally, second-language speakers generally have to learn a new grammar. Differences in grammatical structure cannot be easily overcome by analogies between English and Iroquois.”

The Native studies program is looking for an initial enrollment of about 15 students. There are no prerequisites for the program but students are expected to come in with a strong interest in one of the six Iroquois languages. The program is available to nontraditional students who can earn the certificate through the continuing education program and also to full time traditional students, including those with Haudenosaunee Promise scholarships.

The new program will be of interest to not only students and teachers of Iroquois languages, but also linguists, anthropologists, and historians. The program takes three semesters to complete, and includes courses in Iroquois phonetics, phonology, semantics, verb morphology, and syntax. It culminates with a summer capstone course to demonstrate mastery of the grammatical systems in practice.

Abrams said he is acutely aware of the timing of this program. As the demand for language revitalization increases, so does the need for multiple instructors within each Iroquois community. “Iroquois languages are described as polysynthetic, fusional, and incorporating,” he adds. “’Polysynthetic’ refers to words made up of many parts. ‘Fusional’ denotes phonological changes that occur at the joining of these parts. And ‘incorporating’ is the process by which words or word roots are inserted into an existing word to add meaning to it. All of these factors make for a language family that is difficult to master but important to understand.”

There is another reason why the new Certificate in Iroquois Linguistics for Language Learners program is important, Arnold said. “It’s important that educational institutions—which, historically, have been complicit in the demise of Iroquois languages—work collaboratively with Native communities to revitalize their languages and dialects. We at SU take this responsibility very seriously."

For more information or to apply, visit Syr.edu.