Living language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Apr 11 13:12:17 UTC 2005

Living language

April 10, 2005

KATE GOLDEN/Ma-Tsu Valley Frontiersman (Alaska)

CHICKALOON - At the village's all-ages Ahtna language class, kids from 6
to 60 acted out everything from fiddlehead ferns to moose calves.
Appreciative audience members called out their guesses and heckled the
actors. A roster going around listed eight teachers and eight students. As
usual, neither generation nor demeanor gave a clue as to which ones were

"Hit me!" Calin Wade challenged his mother. Angie Wade turned up a flash
card with a fish on it. "Trout," she said. "Tsabaey," he said. "How much
you want to bet?" The issue was solved with another flip of the cards and
a word from teacher Sondra Stuart. He was right, and he gloated. These
games have serious import. Kari Johns, educational director of
Chickaloon's Ya Ne Dah Ah village school, which the children attend, said,
"We're doing it to keep a language alive."


Katie Wade, Calin's great-grandmother, has not had a full-blown Ahtna
conversation in years. "I cannot tell a story in my own language," she
said. Growing up in Chickaloon, Wade acted as go-between between her
traditional, Ahtna-speaking maternal grandparents and her white,
English-speaking, bootlegger father. The Indian side, she said, was much
richer: They sang, danced and told stories constantly. Ahtna, she
remembered, was a fun language. She and her siblings made up words, used
it as a secret language and played tricks on people.

Stories were funnier in Ahtna. Now, she is the only fluent speaker of her
dialect. At some point, she vowed, "I miss it so much I'm going to try to
teach those kids to how to talk to me." Ten years ago, Wade started
teaching the younger generations of the Chickaloon tribe. Two of her
earliest students, Stuart and Daniel Harrison, are now the main teachers.
The kids aren't far enough along yet to shoot the breeze with Wade. And
disuse has jumbled her syntax over the years. But she's hopeful that Ahtna
will revive.

"I think (they) can get pretty far with it," she said.

Difficult for oldsters

Brainwise, children always have the advantage in learning languages. There
are a few things, however, that make Ahtna inherently more challenging for
adults. Once hard-wired, the alphabets we learn as children are difficult
to expand. And there are some sounds in Athabaskan languages that don't
occur in English. For example, where English recognizes just the letter t,
Ahtna makes words with the variations t', tl, tl', ts and ts'. Athabaskan
expert Siri Tuttle, an assistant professor at the University of Alaska
Fairbanks, calls the language "smooth and lovely and musical."

Angie Wade laughed as she complained, "'Grass,' 'hand' and 'butt' all
sound the same." Both words and sentences are structured differently than
English. Tuttle said that verbs seem to be "inside out," rare among the
world's languages. Wade said that translating sentences is "like
unscrewing some puzzle." And a little twist to a syllable can change the
meaning of a word so drastically that the corresponding English fix would
be to add a whole new sentence.

The form of a verb can vary around several dimensions, indicating time and
the way an action is carried out. Take the verb "chop," for example.
Dozens of variations could indicate whether the object was chopped now,
yesterday, in half, or whether it was hewn into a certain shape. "The
language forces you to pay extremely close attention to the way actions
are carried out," said Gary Holden, assistant professor of linguistics at
University of Alaska Fairbanks. "The way you can include nouns inside
verbs, verbs inside nouns - you can make words that have really deep
meaning," Tuttle said. "Ahtna ... has really remarkable poetic

Blame the white man

It's easy to point blame for the murder of Alaskan Native languages,
Holden said. The history is not pretty. Nearly a century of official
language policy not only favored English but in many cases forbade the use
of native languages. "They made everybody so afraid," Katie Wade said.
Now, there are those who grew up hearing the language but who cut it off
from themselves - "passive speakers," in linguists' argot. They understand
the language, but often they can't get past their psychological
conditioning to speak it.

Wade said she escaped brainwashing because she never went to school. "I
still think like my ancestors did," she said. There's resentment, too.
People sometimes feel that if their language has been taken away, they
want it given back, Holden said. Which is, of course, impossible. It's
been taken away, and now they have to dedicate their lives to
reconstructing it. Adding speakers is a slow, one-by-one process.These
games have serious import. Kari Johns, educational director of

But the language of the forefathers can never come back as it was. "What
comes back is something different," he said. "But it's still language."

Teaching challenges

Wade put resentment aside for the worthy cause of teaching the younger
generation. Her motivation is larger than her linguistic loneliness. The
death of a language, she maintained, causes the death of the culture
that's inextricably linked. Ahtna stories never translated well into
English, children never gleaned the values they related, and it's time she
did something about it.

"The only way you know who you are is when you know your language," she
said. Kari Johns, educational director of Chickaloon Native school Ya Ne
Dah Ah, said, "People have to visualize a culture as being a lure, a
thing, a basket. It's so much deeper than that ... It's how we look at

The task for older students is to abandon their self-consciousness - of
learning as an adult, of past prohibitions on the language - and those in
Chickaloon has done so remarkably, according to Tuttle.

"It seems as though people in this community have just decided to give up
their neuroses and just do what they can do," she said.

Teacher Stuart said it's a "humbling" process. They're all still working
on basic words and little sentences, like "Black bear came to see us."

But at this point, most of the grade-school students have been exposed to
the language training since they were in kindergarten.

"This is everyday life for them," said Stuart, who teaches them daily at
Ya Ne Dah Ah.

They've got the tools

They may lack the usually requisite community of fluent speakers, but they
have killer teaching tools.

There's a dictionary, compiled by Jim Carrey and published in 2000, for
which teachers Harrison and Wade served as key informants. Syntax is more
of a challenge, but Tuttle plans to put together a comprehensive grammar
eventually. And there are field recordings from decades of linguistic

Another linguistic resource: Tuttle herself. She said her role is to
suggest unorthodox solutions to problems or to act as the outsider who
inspires others with her own learning - "If a stupid white lady can get it
..." she laughed.

Sondra Stuart described a pedagogical gap between Chickaloon elders'
traditionally hands-off teaching style and the Western-grown "But Why?"
style of the youngest generation.

The elder's answer to why, she said, was often "You just do it." As a
linguist, Stuart said Tuttle often can explain the 'why' in terms of the
language's internal logic.

Which is something her inquisitive students are always seeking. They're
constantly taking words apart, digging into the syllables to find related
words that might have contributed meaning.

But as for those raw archives, as Holden said, "You really have to be a
connoisseur to appreciate a Dena'ina field recording from 1972." The
Chickaloon challenge is to transform technical linguistics into
user-friendly teaching tools. And that, he said, is where Chickaloon
natives shine. Any kid who watches cartoons can appreciate Chickaloon
Native Dimi Macheras's anime-influenced illustrations. On the Chickaloon
village iBook, you click the dragonfly, which looks like it flew out of a
comic book, and Daniel Harrison's voice says, "Tselc'utsaey." The posters
of alphabet letters adorning the walls, the animal flash cards on the
table, and the other seven Ahtna CD-ROMs all bear Macheras's marks. His
intricate drawings suggest new ways to use an old language. A picture
accompanying the word for 'house,' for example shows a modern house, not
an ancestral Athabaskan one.

Macheras said he went new-school consciously, looking for an aesthetic
that "could resonate with a lot of people that are Native."

Urban Native youths are asking, Johns noted, how they can incorporate
computers into their ancestral languages. That doesn't mean the old ways
are dead. Angie Wade, a birder, relies on Ahtna's many subtle distinctions
between chickadees.

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