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Friday, September 16, 2011

The language.....

Saving the language....

When I hear that term I always picture our language as a small frightened puppy floating on a piece of battered wood slowly drifting away on a vast ocean, and we only have one rope and are desperately trying to hook that board! Yes I know I have the greatest imagination ever, but besides that.....I always wonder why they refer to it as 'saving' the language. Maybe it refers to how digital our language has become, how it has found a home on huge hard drives, the modern version of a museum.

One of the problems I see is that everyone has vastly different views on exactly what they are saving. Some see it as a preservation of just the words themselves. Lists of letters and descriptions and definitions. They move to create a living dictionary out of us, praising recitation and memorization. Brown skin robots trained to make more of themselves.

Or maybe they are of the group that insists that it is spoken correctly and traditionally. They pound and glare our pronunciation into perfection (for that region and family), making us recite the sentence over and over and over until it loses actual meaning and just becomes a spot of shame on our shameful lives, because we will never live the life or understand fully our great grandfathers and mothers.

What boggles me is that no one has ever sat down to prioritize what was the most important aspect of our language. And yes there are aspects of language. Should we focus on saving words that will never be used again? Should we focus on teaching what I call 'classroom' language, full of memorizing and reciting? Should we focus on social language first? Should we try and erase or use Inupiat Slang? Or should we focus on language structure first? What path should we take?

Like the Old time Inupiat I am from three different villages here on the Slope. Like my great grandfather and my great grandmother I was lucky enough to be adopted into several villages, lucky enough to learn different Inupiat things from different types of Inupiat three different dialects. And what I found was that the absolute best teachers of the language were the very sneaky ones. And when I say the 'best' I mean it in that instead of teaching me a word or a phrase or the structure of that word and phrase, they instead completely and utterly change my world view of that particular action or object. They made it so that when I look at that object or when I think of that action....I only think of it in the Inupiaq language. And they usually did it without me even knowing about it. Without fanfare or preparation or buildup. Without stress or testing or frowning correction. It feels as if they were learning with me, experiencing the newness with me, laughing at the mistakes with me. When they don't know a word, they drag me along to find out what that word is. And not once do I feel like I was wrong or that I was learning.

I am very proud of myself for learning the little I am learning. When I use the word or phrase correct, the Speakers around me never stare or guffaw or pat me on the back loudly or pin a prize onto my chest. They instead listen to the sentence I was actually saying, and the fact that I said it or part of it in Inupiaq they accept as normal. And I feel like it's normal. A normal and permanent part of what makes me

But how do you bottle that and sell it?

In truth no matter what we do our language will 'survive'. It is forever digitally crystallized. Safe from ever being really and actually lost. But so is Latin.

One day I will dream in the Inupiaq language. I will write poetry with brilliant twists of phrase in Inupiaq. One day I will be teaching the little words I know to a child that is struggling with their own Identity, and I really hope I remember how painful it could be, and how amazing it is to become a Keeper-of-Small-and-Fantastic-Inupiaq-Things.


  1. i love this piece. Especially:
    "they made it so that when I look at that object or when I think of that action....I only think of it in the Inupiaq language. And they usually did it without me even knowing about it." and the whole last paragraph.

    i teach language (most often as a 2nd language (it is for me too), but sometimes as a heritage/first language (as it is for my son)) so your description was very relevant, and very vivid.

    you're a beautiful writer.

  2. Yes, I agree with Andrea. You're a beautiful writer. I like how you described being able to make mistakes and yet go with the flow. No put downs, only acceptance. That's, I guess, where we all feel safe and are able to move on. Kids learning a language do that too. Life is so much better when we can laugh, feel the power of acceptance, and continue to be.