Alumnus lends a hand to one of California’s critically endangered languages ​​> News > USC Dornsife


Lewis Lawyer wrote the first published book on Patwin’s grammar, spoken by indigenous peoples for hundreds of years and currently undergoing a revitalization effort.

The Patwin people have lived in northern California since around AD 500, using reeds that grew along waterways to weave baskets and structures. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

  • The Patwins were the original inhabitants of Northern California, but decades of forced assimilation nearly erased their language.
  • Former student and linguist Lewis Lawyer decided to contribute to the tribe’s language revitalization efforts by writing a book that describes Patwin’s grammar.
  • The book is now available for free to members of the Patwin community.

The Patwin language was once spoken in hundreds of different communities around the southwest portion of the Sacramento River near Davis, California. After decades of forced assimilation, however, Patwin is considered one of the most endangered languages ​​in the world.

Thanks to Lewis Lawyer, who graduated with a degree in linguistics from USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 2005, the Patwin language finally has its first published grammar book, A grammar of Patwin (University of Nebraska Press, 2021).

A photo of Lewis Lawyer

Lewis Lawyer recently helped design the first Cambridge English Thesaurus. (Photo: Courtesy of Lewis Lawyer.)

The lawyer was inspired to write the book after discovering that the University of California at Davis, where he was completing a doctorate in linguistics, was located on the site of a former Patwin village. For hundreds of years, the tribe hunted, fished, and weaved baskets from the reeds along Putah Creek, which has now been diverted into a drainage basin for the campus.

Beginning in the mid-1700s, native Californians were forced to leave their ancestral homes and live and work in Spanish-built missions. Later, they were sent to American boarding schools for “re-education”, where speaking their native language was forbidden. Use of Patwin declined, and by the 2000s only one native Patwin speaker remained.

For Lawyer, the thought that an entire language could be lost fueled his desire to write a book that could help preserve it. “Language encodes an entire culture. Every time a language stops being spoken, there is a whole system of knowledge that is no longer used,” he says.

Practical linguistics

The lawyer originally enrolled at USC as a jazz major, but a linguistics class sparked new interest, so he changed course, majoring in linguistics and music instead. He went to work conducting research in the tech world after graduating.

He soon realized he missed academia, so he returned to school at UC Davis for a doctorate in linguistics in 2008. He initially thought he would write his thesis on something ” relatively theoretical”, but began to feel called to write something more practical.

“I really wanted to take all those years of linguistics training that started at USC Dornsife and write something that people could actually use,” he says.

He contacted a contact from the university’s Native American studies department to see if his skills could be useful. He learned about the history of the Patwin people and the ongoing efforts to revitalize their language.

The revelation resonated on a personal level. “Davis is my home; that’s where I grew up. I had never heard of the language, I had never heard of the people, and I had no idea they were still around,” says Lawyer.

Archive Help

He set out to establish a relationship with the Patwin tribes and the Patwins working on his linguistic endeavors. As a non-Indigenous person, Lawyer was aware that his outreach activities could be seen as intrusive.

“I made sure they knew I didn’t claim the language and didn’t claim any ancestry. If they wanted me to buzz, I would buzz. I ended up having a pretty good relationship with them,” says Lawyer.

He delved into the archives, looking for written documents and recordings. One of his earliest sources was the papers of Plato Vallejo, housed at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.

Vallejo was the son of Mariano Vallejo, a Spanish general from northern California who founded the city of Sonoma on Patwin land. Plato was raised by an enslaved Patwin, who taught Plato and his brother phrases from the native language.

“When he was an old man, [Platon] realized that nobody spoke that language anymore, so he sat down and wrote down all the words he could remember and tried to translate some of the prayers,” says Lawyer.

The right to speak

Lawyer is now based in Cambridge, England, where he is Head of Dictionary Reference Systems at Cambridge University Press. He recently participated in the design of the Cambridge English Thesaurus.

Between work and caring for his family, Lawyer still devotes his time to translating texts and defending endangered languages. A collection of Patwin resources is available free to anyone of Patwin ancestry on the Lawyer website.

Lawyer sees this work as a contribution to a basic human right. The right to a language is, after all, enshrined in treaties such as the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The language of an indigenous group is its fundamental right. This is not America’s place for

to say, “Well, not enough people speak that language” or “English is more useful anyway,” says Lawyer. “If they want to continue speaking their language, if they want a reference work, it’s a fundamental right.”


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