Native Tongues: The Languages That Once Mapped the American Landscape Have Almost Vanished

By Lord, Nancy | Sierra, November-December 1996 | Go to article overview

Native Tongues: The Languages That Once Mapped the American Landscape Have Almost Vanished


Lord, Nancy, Sierra


As I walk one day through the woods above my Alaska fishcamp, I find myself thinking of the stream that slips by me in the brush. Though I only glimpse it in one spot, I know its twists and turns as contours of the place, its flow not just as water but as map. This is the traditional way by which the people of this place know where they are and where they are going.

Before the invention of the compass, people in most parts of the world marked direction by the sun and stars. In the far north, though, the sun crosses the sky in greatly varied locations depending on the season, and summer nights are brighter than starlight. Eskinos developed directional systems based on positions relative to the coastline, while Athabaskans developed theirs according to the flow of rivers.

The logic of this--even for me, who came to the this Alaska shore from afar and only as an adult--is obvious, and truly lovely. The old, meandering trail I follow keeps the creek on one side, connecting the beach on Cook Inlet with the forested uplands. Downstream the creek takes me home; upstream it takes me to ponds and a lake, then farther inland to another lake. Since the beginning of our lives here my partner and I have referred to Cook Inlet itself in upstream and downstream terms, because of the way the water flows in and rushes out on the tides. When I learned that the Dena'ina Athabaskans who first inhabitated the Cook Inlet area called the inlet something that translated to "Big-Water River" and marked its directions as upstream, downstream and across, I understood withe new clarity how the language was confirming the landscape, the landscape shaping the language. The way of speaking about the inlet was given by the inlet itself.

As I learned a little Dena'ina, I began to see its profound dependence on locations. Athabaskan languages layer prefixes and suffixes onto root words in a way the emphasizes directions, distances, and relative positionings--very important for a semi-nomadic culture where people needed to be very clear about where they were and where they needed to go for food and other necessities. (This might be compared to the complexity of verb tenses in the languages of cultures oriented more toward considerations of timing.) Dena'ina, which builds into one word locational information that would take and entire sentence in English, serves life in this place both efficiently and elegantly.

Languages, of course, belong to environments in the same way the living creatures do, shaped by and shaping the places that spawn them, both in the words needed to identify and address the particulars of those places and in the structures needed to survive in them. And so I want to learn what I can of the language of this place where I live, just as I want to know its plants and wildlife. Its very name--Kustatan, "point of land"--describes it perfectly. The brown bear's name--ggagga--is used sometimes to refer to animals in general and indicates how significant that bear was in Dena'ina culture; it also reminds me that bears are still largely in charge here. The raven's name is ggugguyni, pronounced to match the watery gurgle the bird makes in the back of its throat, and the golden-crowned sparrow tsik'ezlagh all summer sings the three descending minor-key notes that sound out its name. My experience of what I see and hear around me is vastly enriched by being able to identify even a small bit of it in its native, coevolutionary tongue.

It is only because of one remarkable man that I know anything about it. The last Dena'ina to speak the dialect of this area, Peter Kalifonsky, died in 1993, but only after committing his last years to preserving his native tongue. With the help of a linguist, Kalifornsky worked out a written form of the language and then became its first author, writing several books of traditional and personal stories. He also developed language lessons and began to teach the Dena'ina language to the people who owned it and frad lost it--or, rather, had it taken from them. …

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