Alaska Native languages

So I live in Alaska now: circumstances change, and life remains endlessly fascinating. 1

For a new European expat in North America, Alaska is one of the more unusual places to land on. Compared to Texas, the second largest US state, it’s 2.5 times the size, but less than 3% of the population (about 700,000, half of them living in the Anchorage area). It has a variety of climates, most of them extreme, and endless environmental, geophysical and atmospheric phenomena rarely found elsewhere, from volcanoes, via the swampy tundra to the aurora borealis. Even many Americans seem to be unaware, or astonishingly dismissive, of the ways day-to-day life in Alaska is unlike any other place in the US.

One of many language-related features is that Alaska is the US state with the largest percentage (15%), if not absolute number, of inhabitants of Native American heritage. As far as language families are concerned, most Alaskan Native languages belong either to the Eskimo-Aleut (such as Iñupiaq, Central Yup’ik, Alutiiq etc.) or the Na-Dené (also Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit) family. Many of them, especially in the second group, are endangered (or worse).

Even though identical or related groups are involved, terminology both for people and languages is not uniform across the Alaskan/Canadian border. “Eskimo”, for example, is regarded as derogatory in Canada (and Greenland), and you’d most likely find references to Inuit peoples and (though this is a less universal term) Inuktitut for their languages, which may well be written in Inuktitut syllabics. In Alaska, while it seems appropriate to use the term somewhat self-consciously as an outsider, “Eskimo” is often found in self-descriptions and seen as useful as it is a general term covering distinct but related groups of people: “Iñupiat Eskimo”, “Yup’ik Eskimo”, though the second part’s optional: “I’m Iñupiaq and I count” was proudly written on some T-shirts for last year’s census. Oh, and as for pronunciation, I haven’t figured it out entirely, but “Iñupiaq/Iñupat” has three syllables and is stressed on the first.

My employer, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, pays attention to how it serves the educational needs of Native students and rural communities (overlapping but not identical categories), and also has a number of research interests, in particular through its Alaska Native Language Center.

The ANLC web site is worth digging around in. My favourite is the Native Peoples and Languages of Alaska map, first published by Michael Krauss in 1974 and recently (2011) updated. It can be ordered, and there is an interactive (zoomable) online version on the Alaskaskool web site (Alaska Native culture resources for kindergarten through high school teaching).

Now for learning an Alaska Native language, UAF of course offers classes (I’m tempted), but barring that, there are a number of sites that have “word of the day/week” features. Some, though currently inactive, may still be worth discovering (Athabascan word of the week, Iñupiaq Word of the Day, the Inupiatun language circle on Facebook). My favourite is the Alutiiq word of the week from the Alutiiq Museum on Kodiak Island, which I really want to go visit in person. There’s also an online shop with artwork as well as more Alutiiq language resources.

Last, blogs. Talking Alaska is a group blog on “topics related to Alaska Native languages, including language documentation, language revitalization, language activism, and language endangerment”. A recent interesting post, for example, approached the issue of whether to replace the (non-indigenous) term “Athabascan” with “Dene” (also: Dené), and why.

Via Talking Alaska I found Writing Raven, a Tlingit/Dena’ina Athabascan, and her blog Alaska Real. She has a three (1) part (2) series (3) on why it matters to keep Native languages alive and addresses a series of misinformed arguments against language revitalization. An excerpt:

For the most part, what happened to the Native languages of the Americas wasn’t a natural evolution. What happened was traumatic, invasive and left no room for real adaptation. […]
I had a great Tlingit teacher who talked to us about a common Tlingit expression I heard growing up. When someone says “Gunalcheesh” (thank you) – the response is often “Ho ho!” (you’re welcome.) I really did hear this often.
What a surprise to learn it didn’t mean what I think it meant over 20 years later! “Gunalcheesh ho ho” actually is one phrase, and is used to emphasize the thank you – like “Thank you VERY much.” There is no phrase commonly said, traditionally, to respond to thank you, as there is in English. But the “young kids” as she said (she meant my parents generation!) were changing this, and this new kind of word was emerging.
To a language, she said, this is a great thing. It shows the language is alive, and adapting. The “young kids” were choosing to change this on their own, because it suited the younger culture more, and it brought two languages together.

I love the story, and think she’s entirely right.

Notes:

  1. Two countries and a blog or three ago there were France and Diacritiques, the bilingual language blog: rough around the edges, but well-liked and well-linked by a small number of interesting people. Then, in 2006, came a big jump to the UK, an employment in commercial software replaced freelancing and occasional teaching. It was a good step in many ways, but not for my blogging, and this place never took off. Now, as of six months ago (February 2011), another big jump: after 15 years I left European capitals behind and joined my partner to live outside Fairbanks, latitude 64.8, to go back to working in a scientific environment. This footnote is for the benefit of any old reader from 5 years ago who might be interested. There are no promises or big announcements: I dislike blogging-about-one’s-blogging, so the note ends here.

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