"Where English uses tense, Blackfoot uses person. English cares about when something happened, Blackfoot cares about who’s involved.”
Prof. Elizabeth Ritter
“For linguists, the loss of a language is like the loss of a species, it is irretrievable,” declares Prof. Elizabeth Ritter of the Conrad and Chinita Abrahams-Curiel Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics. “Languages are dying at a terrifying rate, and it is very important to document them.”
Ritter, who recently came to BGU from the University of Calgary in Western Canada, has spent the last ten years of her academic career analyzing Blackfoot, a threatened Native American language. At present there are only an estimated 3,500 speakers. “I started working on this project because the language was fast disappearing, and this could help with its preservation,” she says.
What attracted Ritter to BGU? “In Calgary I was the only specialist in my area,” she says. “Here at BGU I have three world-class colleagues. Being in a university that is supportive of its faculty and also gives us the opportunity and the resources to do our research was very attractive.”
Ritter teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in morphology, syntactics and methodology, in parallel with her research.
She moved to Lehavim, outside Beer-Sheva with her 15-year-old daughter Mika. Although it’s usually particularly difficult for teenagers to move to a foreign country, she says her daughter, an active member of Habonim Dror in Canada, has been very enthusiastic about the move, and has joined the Israeli Scouts.
Ritter’s interest in linguistics actually began in a kibbutz ulpan in 1978 where she “fell madly in love” with the Hebrew language. “I was in a class with Russians, Spaniards, Americans, and was fascinated by the fact that different native speakers had different problems with the language. It was an ‘aha’ moment,” she recalls.
She began studying linguistics at Tel Aviv University, eventually winning a full scholarship to study for her PhD at MIT. After a two-year post-doc at l'Université du Québec á Montréal, and a year as a research associate at the University of Toronto, she was offered the position at Calgary where she began her study of the language of the Blackfoot tribe, which belongs to the Algonquin nation of southern Alberta and northern Montana.
What linguists find intriguing about Blackfoot – and all languages in the Algonquian family, such as Cheyenne, Shawnee and Cree – is that its structure is completely different than well-studied languages such as English, French or Hebrew. “Languages we are more familiar with have a temporal structure, they describe events in past, present and future time,” explains Ritter. “Blackfoot has a different structure; it describes events in terms of the person who is acting: you, me or someone else. Where English uses tense, Blackfoot uses person. English cares about when something happened, Blackfoot cares about who’s involved.”
But, says Ritter, at an abstract level the grammars of all languages are very similar, and her research focuses on what all languages have in common. Ritter asks the question: “What is it precisely that we’re born with? Every child goes through the same stages learning his or her own language, no matter what the parenting or circumstances. If there wasn’t something in common biologically, how could this happen? By looking for what languages have in common I think we find things that we would otherwise miss,” she continues.
Ritter, together with Dr. Martina Wiltschko of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, has developed a hypothesis. “Our idea is that there are a set of universal functions, and languages use those functions with different content.”
One aspect of study is subject and verb agreement. “All languages have the same person distinctions: you, me and somebody else. They all have the same number of distinctions: one and more than one. This is a fundamental property of all languages,” she explains.
Another function is gender, though this characteristic is a lot more difficult to categorize. Some languages have no gender distinctions; some have two or three, while some, like Swahili, have a dozen classes of gender. Algonquian languages use animate and inanimate instead of masculine and feminine. “How gender works,” explains Ritter, “the fact that it ties nouns to other words in the sentence, that’s universal. So I am interested in finding out the commonalities, why if languages have this common core, they can look so different on the surface.”
As she wraps up her work on Blackfoot, which has consumed her for so many years, Ritter believes she will be able to return to the study of Hebrew, her first love. “Now I can start thinking about Hebrew as fitting into this system. While there’s been a lot of linguistic analysis of Hebrew, I think there is more to say about its tense system. I’m interested in the Hebrew that people actually speak: what are the patterns, and why? There are a lot of interesting things still to discover.”