A Brief Look at Some Native American Languages

Today is an American holiday fraught with controversy. In its honor, I have decided to reflect upon some indigenous languages of the Americas, one of which I know quite well and the other two of which I don’t.

  1. Sioux / Lakota

 

For those of you wondering what language was described in my book collection as a mixture of Polish, French and Chinese, wonder no more!

 

Obviously this statement can only be qualified in regards to the way the language sounds, and even then there are those that may try to call it into question. For one, the “l” sound in Lakota sounds very much like the English “w”, not unlike the Polish letter “ł”.

 

Lakota has a language forum for all levels (from beginner until Native Speaker) and a language consortium as well. Have a look yourself:

 

http://www.lakotadictionary.org/phpBB3/

 

http://www.lakhota.org/

 

One thing that is noteworthy about Lakota is that, unlike either of the other members on this list, it is a very purist language.

 

For those of you who have studied Chinese you may remember that various country names are given new versions that match a certain sound in the language being borrowed from and a meaning in Chinese that is deemed relevant.

 

Lakota is even more rigid in fact that the names given to countries don’t even match any sound in the language. The word for “Germany”, for example, literally means “the land of people who speak badly”

 

iyasica makhoche

There is a historical reason for this: American settlers were expected to speak English, and the Sioux picked up the language accordingly. As for the German-American settlers that spoke German and not English—they were known as the “people who speak badly” because they couldn’t be understood. The name stuck and remains in place until today.

 

I actually did some searches in the Lakota Dictionary for “Israel”, “Austria”, and “Switzerland” and it didn’t turn up anything.

 

The words for modern inventions are likewise all neologisms, not unlike the situation found in Icelandic, also noted for being notoriously purist.

 

Some things you may recognize in the journey to learning (which I have barely begun because of sustaining other languages): the word “tipi” comes from Lakota, as does a system for giving names to outsiders, similar to that of Chinese (also quite purist). Obviously this system has been featured in American popular culture depictions of Native Americans.

 

For those of you who might have played some of the Age of Empires games, I recall vaguely that one of the installments did feature Sioux soldiers using bits of genuine Lakota.

 

Before I go onto the next language, I should say that the Lakota Language Consortium has created a version of the Bernstein Bears cartoons dubbed into the language!

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nta0aAQyVIA&list=PLWebueRr1D03NQzavj6yIHZimqbjFhQ1Y

 

  1. Greenlandic / Kalaallisut

 

“Oh, that’s the language with the really long words, right?”

kid banging on a typewriter

Greenlandic is an Eskimo-Aleut language with a good balance of purism and Danish import words. The word “Inuit” is actually a Greenlandic word, meaning “people”. For that matter, “Igloo” also comes from the word “illu”, meaning “house”.

The names of the countries in Greenlandic almost all come from Danish, with exceptions made for Greenland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the Faroe Islands (arguably America, which could be referred to as “USA”, “Amerika”, or “Naalagaaffeqatigiit”, which is a literal translation of “United States”).

Some linguistics have referred to Greenlandic as the world’s hardest language, and therefore I should consider a blogpost as to why learning Greenlandic isn’t as hard as they might thing. But this is not that post.

I wrote about Greenlandic in more detail here: https://worldwithlittleworlds.wordpress.com/2014/05/30/thats-all-one-word-learning-introductory-greenlandic/comment-page-1/

Interesting fact: Greenlandic was featured in Gravity, spoken by an off-screen character singing a lullaby.

For those of you more intrigued by Greenland’s more modern side (which I get asked quite often about by people), look no further than these links:

Here is a show on KNR (the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation), in which video games and movies are reviewed:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NjR5uAaAZM

 

One of my favorite television shows back before KNR did a cleanup of its site a few weeks ago was this show, “Pisuttuarpunga” (a kid’s show, “I was out for a walk”). It is based on the premise of a Greenlandic children’s song about what kids think about when the adults in their lives are away working.

The premise is based on the song (featured in the video), and the main character who lives in a tent spends each episode trying out a new job in real-life modern Greenland, and learns the basics of each in a given episode. Extraordinarily educational, and I believe there are two seasons for sale on DVD (but hopefully the free episodes will come back to the site soon):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtjEdZ8XxiY

 

My journey through Greenlandic Language and Culture has been quite extensive so I invite you to look around this blog and read what you want on the topic, should you be interested.

  1. Nahuatl

 

“The Elegant Language”, as it literally translates to, was formerly known as “Aztec” by many. My Nahuatl book (which is in German) asks the following question in the introduction: “Aztec? Hasn’t it already died off?”

 

No, actually, and when you think about it, it makes sense that it didn’t. If the Spanish colonists were trying to convert the local populations, wouldn’t it make sense to learn the local languages to reach out to them? (The same logic that led to the New Testament being translated into Yiddish…the result is positively hilarious, I assure you…)

 

That book also offers the following remark about the indigenous languages of Mexico: there are many of them, and they are about as diverse as German, Korean, and Swahili. (Hence: if you think that a given Maya Language is similar to Nahuatl in any way…rest assured that English and Icelandic are closer to each other than Maya Languages to Nahuatl)

 

Nahuatl is probably the best known of the “Nahuan Languages”, which is why my book regularly offers dialectal varieties.

 

Students of Nahuatl may be surprised with the amount of words that may be familiar to them in some context already—“Tomato”, “Avocado”, “Chili”, “Mexico” and “Chocolate” all have their origins in the language. Many place names of Mexico are similarly indebted, as are import words known to speakers of Mexican Spanish.

 

Like Greenlandic, Nahuatl is polysynthetic, as you could possibly guess from looking at the Nahuatl “Huiquipedia” : http://nah.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cal%C4%ABxatl

 

One thing that quite vexes me about learning Nahuatl, however, is the relative lack of multimedia material (e.g. the likes of the Greenlandic videos seen above). Maybe I just need to look in other places…

 

…but it is good to know that there are many universities throughout the world that are teaching it and that there are eager students willing to learn!

 

Will you be one of them?

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