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Dombroski engages the puzzle of Timucua

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Linguists research Timucua, a language with no speakers.

Joe Dombroski’s work on the Timucua project was not prompted by a desire to resurrect another of the world’s disappearing languages. It is not like there is anyone who is going to use it again, he explained. Timucua-speakers are gone.

Dombroski (’06), who is majoring in English and psychology at the College, was recruited to the task by associate professors of English Jack Martin and Ann Reed, who needed his skills in producing digital files along with his understanding of the history of old books. Working with the professors, Dombroski is helping to create an electronic version of Arte, the 17th-century grammar of Timucua, a language whose last speakers vanished after being sent to Cuba in 1732.

“It is very cool to be working with something that not a lot of people have worked with before, at least in modern times,” Dombroski said. “The value is not that we’re saving the language but that, when we are finished, you can do comparative research with other languages in the area, even though we haven’t figured out how it is connected yet.”

The Arte, written by a Spanish priest, Father Francisco Pareja, is the first grammar of any North American language, so the historical nature of the work is self-apparent, not only in terms of what can be gleaned about the culture of the Timucua but also in terms of how languages were documented by Spanish priests of that period.

As he works with the text, Dombroski has struggled through the various abbreviations and symbols that Pareja used.

“During the medieval period, there were a lot of stylistic concerns that you make individual decisions on,” Dombroski explained. “Father Pareja doesn’t seem to be consistent in how he uses these things, but I don’t think that is a flaw. We think of inconsistency as a problem, and it does make it harder for the modern reader, but someone in that time period just understood these abbreviations implicitly.

Dombroski said the project continues to be exciting, and he hopes his efforts ultimately contribute to a better understanding of early North American cultures.

“It is like I am working on a puzzle,” he said. “You piece together the few details that you have and then you can try to figure out what the big picture is.”

Photo: Dombroski poses in front of Tucker Hall. By David Williard.

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