background_fid (1).jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

UCSC Linguists Use Modern Technology To Study Ancient Language

Doug McKnight



Credit Doug McKnight
Ultrasound picture of a tongue


Credit Doug McKnight
Street sign in English and Irish in Dublin

Right now there are about 6000 different languages are spoken around the world. But many linguists predict if nothing is done half of those will disappear within this century.  One of those languages is Irish or Gaelic. This nearly 2000 year old language is no longer the primary language in Ireland and is changing with every generation. So UC Santa Cruz researchers are trying to save it.

Dr. Jaye  Padgett places a metal frame helmet over his head.  “This thing looks like something from one of the saw movies. That’s our standard joke. When we whip it out this is one of the scariest moments in our research because, you know, there is always that feeling that the participant will just get up and walk out of the room,” says Padgett.

The helmet has screws that tighten and force it securely to Pagett’s face.

Padgett says, “It’s meant to make it really firm on your head”

It is one thing to record the sounds speakers make and another to actually see how they make the sounds that form the words. That is what Padgett and his colleague Dr. Grant McGuire are researching in the language most of us know as Gaelic, but in Ireland it’s called Irish.

Attached to the helmet is a probe that must be held perfectly in place below the chin. It records the movement of the tongue and creates ultrasound pictures.

Padgett says, “It is like this amazing orchestration you know…different things happening to produce speech. So if you want to study that, you have to see it.”

One thing they’re looking at in the ultrasound images is how consonants are pronounced. All have two sounds…a slender sound and a broad sound.

“When I said 'bule' that is a slender B. And when I say 'bul' that is a broad B.  And we want to understand how people are…what kind of gymnastics they are going through in their mouths in order to maintain this contrast,” says Padgett.

Padgett and McGuire are working on this study with Dr. Marie Ni chosen from University College Dublin in Ireland.

Making sure the speakers are pronouncing the words correctly is ni chosen’s responsibility. She recruits the speakers for the study and then the UCSC researchers bring the ultrasound helmet to Ireland a couple of times a year to record the speakers she has selected.

Finding those subjects is a job made more difficult by the relatively small pool of traditional Irish speakers. While most natives speak some Irish, less than 3 percent of the population speaks it on a daily basis. And there are other challenges.

Ni chosen says, “We want to document the traditional dialects. And the language is changing quite rapidly, particularly across generations.”

All languages are dynamic and change from generation to generation. So traditional Irish is not only threatened by decreasing numbers of speakers, it is also threatened by generations that change the way words are pronounced.

Audrey Nickel performs Irish music and teaches Irish in Santa Cruz. She is a fluent in Irish, even though she is not from Ireland.

“I was born in Merced California, but I was raised in Spokane Washington,” says Nickel.

What drew Nickel to the language was the music. She says, “The first song I ever heard in Irish was on the old Irish Rovers television program…and I said…I have to learn to sing this way.”

Nickel says the songs wouldn’t be the same if they were translated to another language. She says, “Language is more than just a mode of communication. It tells you a lot about how people think and how they feel. And when a language disappears from the world, so much of that unique mode of expression is lost.”

UC Santa Cruz’s Dr. Padgett agrees. He says, “All it takes is one generation of kids that decides that this Irish is, you know, not useful to them, and the language can be gone.”

Padgett and his colleagues are creating a database of  sounds and ultrasound pictures they collect with the hope that it will help preserve the  language forever.