SALT LAKE CITY -- In a move that has drawn criticism from linguists, the University of Utah is "restructuring" a center devoted to documenting and preserving native languages across North, Central and South America.
The action will allow the Center for American Indian Languages to focus on Utah's tribal languages, a shift from its current work on languages across the New World, particularly in South and Central America, university officials said.
Former center leader Chris Rogers said there isn't another facility doing research with such a broad focus, and the change is a blow to efforts to document native languages across the Americas before they fall silent.
"It's such an important part of what linguists are doing now," he said. "Closing it is like shooting yourself in the foot."
The 8-year-old center, under the leadership of founder Lyle Campbell, gave the university national stature in the language preservation movement.
An internationally recognized expert in Mesoamerican languages, Campbell left two years ago to become a linguistics professor at the University of Hawaii. The fate of some initiatives started under his leadership is unknown.
University officials defend the "restructuring," saying it will "enable greater efficiency and coordination within the college and university-wide."
Humanities Dean Robert Newman said it makes sense to build initiatives around current faculty, not Campbell.
"While the Department of Linguistics has decided that Lyle's research focus is no longer a priority for future hiring, we intend to continue work on language revitalization and preservation, specifically as it relates to the Utah tribes," he wrote by email.
Dozens of the Americas' indigenous cultures are expected to lose their native languages in coming decades, according to Campbell and other experts who are in a race against time to record the last surviving speakers.
"A language is a unique window on the human mind," Campbell said. "It's a loss of human, cultural and scientific information" when a language is lost.
The Center is housed in a historic red sandstone building (c. 1875) in Fort Douglas, at the edge of the University of Utah campus. Its three floors accommodate on-going projects, visiting scholars, postdoctoral fellows and students.