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Linguist Keren Rice elected to American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Photo of: Keren RiceWhat do Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela and University Professor Keren Rice have in common? All have been elected foreign members of the prestigious American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

The academy is one of the most prestigious honorary societies of scholars, scientists, writers, artists, philanthropists and business leaders in the United States. Rice is being recognized for her work documenting, sustaining and revitalizing aboriginal languages.

Many of the more than 60 native languages across Canada that were registered in the 2011 census have very few native speakers today. Dene, an Athapaskan language of the Northwest Territories, remains vital in many communities and Rice, of the Department of Linguistics, is a big part of the reason why.

Her work includes a dictionary and A Grammar of Slave, a book published in 1989 that maps out Dene grammar and is still in wide use today. Rice has also brought her research directly into the community for the benefit of native teachers and students by helping to develop training programs and language sustainability and research strategies for northern communities.

A celebrated scholar, Rice was elected to the American Philosophical Society last year, received the Molson prize in the humanities and social sciences for outstanding lifetime achievement and ongoing contribution to the cultural and intellectual life of Canada in 2012 and the Canada Council for the Arts’ Killam Prize in 2011. Rice is also a member of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, founding director of U of T’s Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives and recipient of the university’s most prestigious teaching accolade, the President’s Teaching Award.

Rice was completely taken by surprise by this latest recognition; unaware that she had even been nominated.

“It has been a real honour to have the privilege of working with speakers of some of the indigenous languages in Canada, especially with people in some of the Dene communities of the Northwest Territories,” she said. “It has been a tremendous learning experience for me, and I only hope that I have been able to make some contribution to them as well. This honour belongs with all of them.”

Rice will be officially inducted at a ceremony in October alongside singer-songwriter Judy Collins, Pulitizer-prize winner Holland Cotter, novelist Tom Wolfe, Nobel prize-winner Brian Kobilka and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.