The city of Yucaipa's name is derived from a Serrano word. But no one alive knows what that original word means, or perhaps even what it once was.

To prevent further words fading from memory, Cal State San Bernardino, in cooperation with the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, will add Serrano classes to the university's other language offerings.

"Our language has laid dormant for so long," tribal chairwoman Carla Rodriguez said.

About an eighth of the 122-year-old tribe of about 200 people knows at least some Serrano, she said, but there's room for improvement.

"I have an obligation within my home to have it be something we use on a daily basis," Rodriguez said.

"The language is sacred; it’s not something you take lightly," said Ernest Siva. "It’s a gift from the Creator." Siva, 76,
"The language is sacred; it's not something you take lightly," said Ernest Siva. "It's a gift from the Creator." Siva, 76, learned the Serrano language as a child and now helps preserve it among local bands. (Rachel Luna/Staff Photographer)

In May, the tribe signed an agreement with the university to offer the course, which will be taught by members of the San Manuel's Serrano Language Revitalization Project staff.

"They've had linguists working on the textbooks for quite a while," said Carmen Jany, the associate professor in the Department of World Languages and Literature in the College of Arts and Letters, who is supervising the implementation of the Serrano program.

CSUSB will offer one class per quarter, with each quarter advancing from the last, so that a student could complete the whole one-year program in the coming school year.

Serrano isn't the only native American language offered on the campus: The university also offers classes in Luiseño, the language of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians.

The Serrano classes will be open to community members through the extended learning program at the university and that many of the participants won't be full-time university students. Half of the spots in each class are reserved for Native American students.

"Mostly, those classes are interesting for tribal teachers who want to teach their students on the reservation," Jany said.

Serrano presents a special challenge for educators, she said.

Serrano language

Hello: Hamiinat

Goodbye: Pahi'kow

Yes: Haa

No: Nou

Coyote: Wahi'

Sun: Taamiat

Yucca: Uumuc

Juniper: Waa't

Morning: Uva'im

Night: Tuuk

"When you teach those major languages, usually you have a community that speaks that language and you can send the students out to practice," she said. "If you're teaching Korean, you can send students to Koreatown," in Los Angeles. "So they are a little limited to where they can practice the language outside of the classroom."

And it's harder for Serrano than for most: The last native Serrano speaker died in 2002. For the past eight years, the San Manuel Band has relied on Ernest Siva, a 76-year-old member of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, who learned the language as a child, but who wouldn't characterize himself as a fluent speaker.

"The language is sacred; it's not something you take lightly," he said. "It's a gift from the Creator."

The language also lacked a formalized written component until relatively recently: "All the local indigenous languages were oral languages to begin with," Jany said. The current Serrano alphabet only dates back to around 2006.

The chance to teach a language in danger of going extinct excites a linguist like Jany.

"You can see the parallels between bio-diversity and language diversity," she said. "Whenever you lose a language, you lose so much," including local knowledge, history and place names. Even in translation, it's not the same: "When you try to translate a concept into another language, you always lose something."

Speaking and thinking in Serrano means looking at the world in a different way, tribe members said: There are only six months in a year, based on the seasons, and the language is better at describing familial relationships and emotions than English.

The university is developing a certificate in California Indian languages, a counterpart to standard teaching credentials, from students who complete the entire program.

"We've already had a few people signing up for classes," Rodriguez said. "I think it's going to be successful."

Just keeping the Serrano language alive is enough for Siva:

"People ask 'what do you hope to achieve?'" he said. "Whatever comes of it."