Linguists receive $260,000 grant to study endangered Irish language

UC Santa Cruz Professor of Linguistics Jaye Padgett in Ireland
UC Santa Cruz Assistant Professor of Linguistics Grant McGuire

“Although we all have tongues, we are surprisingly bad at knowing precisely what they're doing or conveying that to others,” says UC Santa Cruz professor of linguistics Jaye Padgett.

Tongue motion, it turns out, is crucial to the documentation of endangered languages.

Who knew?

And we haven’t even got to the ultrasound part yet.

Let me explain.

UC Santa Cruz researchers are working hard to document the Irish language. Even though it is an official language of Ireland and has considerable government support, it is highly endangered. Only 1.5%  to 3% of the population regularly use it in their community, and its future is in doubt.

But one unusual feature of the Irish language is that every consonant comes in two varieties--one where the tongue is raised and pushed forward, and one where it is raised and retracted. So, one important goal of the researchers is to document this contrast--using real-time tongue imaging.

“We do this using a portable ultrasound machine which allows us to non-invasively capture video of the tongue's surface while it moves during speech,” says Padgett. “Analysis of this ultrasound data will also allow us to answer more general questions about speech production.”

The use of ultrasound in speech research is still in its early stages. Other ways of capturing tongue motion can be dangerous (x-ray video), or more expensive and less portable (MRI). To date, there are very few ultrasound studies of languages outside of English and other dominant languages, and there are none of Irish.

UC Santa Cruz, however, has just been awarded a $261,255 grant from the National Science Foundation to undertake a new project titled "Collaborative Research: An Ultrasound Investigation of Irish Palatalization.”

The principal investigators for the project are Padgett and assistant professor Grant McGuire from the UC Santa Cruz Linguistics Department. They will work in collaboration with Ryan Bennett of Yale, a former student of the linguistics program at UC Santa Cruz and Máire Ní Chiosián of University College, Dublin.

Padgett and Bennett have both published research on the sound system of Irish. McGuire and Bennett have developed the ultrasound infrastructure at UC Santa Cruz. Ní Chiosáin's primary research area is Irish language phonology, and she is a native speaker of Irish.

“The funding from the NSF is crucial as it will allow us to take the machine to Ireland, record native speakers of Irish, and analyze the data we collect with the help of graduate and undergraduate students at UCSC and Yale,” said Padgett.

“Analyzing ultrasound data is pretty labor-intensive,” he added. “There are three major dialect regions of Irish, isolated from each other, and we are investigating all three.”

Apart from documentation and research, the researchers also plan to use their ultrasound data to create materials that will be useful to those who want to learn Irish, both within Ireland and around the world.

WATCH a short video of an Irish tongue moving.