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In This Section
  November/December 1996 Features:
Native Environmentalism
First People, Firsthand Knowledge
Return of the Sinkyone
Native Tongues
Saying the World Alive
Ways & Means
Food for Thought
Hearth & Home
Way to Go
Sierra Club Bulletin
Last Words

Sierra Magazine
Native Tongues

The languages that once mapped the American landscape have almost vanished.

by Nancy Lord

"The Shooting Star," El Capitan, California · Southern Sierra Miwok

Tsé Bit'a'í
"Rock With Wings," Ship Rock, New Mexico · Navajo

"Hoary-Headed Fathers," Tetons, Wyoming · Shoshone

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. Eskimos 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 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 inhabited 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 with 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 that 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 an entire sentence in English, serves life in this place both efficiently and elegantly.

Languages, of course, belong to environments in the same way that 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 the 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 Kalifornsky, 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 had lost it--or, rather, had it taken from them. This linguistic recovery coincided with a lively cultural revival--even if Dena'ina is listed by the University of Alaska as a "foreign" language.

To identify mountains, Kalifornsky used single words for "ridge broken up into knolls, almost bare," "ridge with knolls pointing up," "ridge sloping to a point," "pointed up mountain," and "sloping mountain." He listed words for the way trees grow on the mountains: "they grow on the upper mountain slope"; "they grow up the mountain in strips"; "they grow up the mountainsides"; "they grow through the pass." The translations are awkward but precise. They make me look more attentively at mountainsides now, see with more exactness their shapes against the sky and the patterns of their vegetation.

There's poetry in Dena'ina, too. The volcanic mountain known as Redoubt I now think of by the translation of its native name-- "the one with wrinkled forehead." Sixty-Foot Rock has metamorphosed before my eyes, particularly in the warm-weather mirages that are so common here, as "soles of feet waving." A distant mountain is known as "ridge where we cry," because from it the Dena'ina could look down and think about their mothers and fathers and brothers--all their people who went there before them, all their sad and beautiful history, all their connections to one another and to the place that was home. The Roman culture behind the names of our months has its own attractions, but June, September, and January can never suit this land as do "king salmon month," "the month leaves turn yellow," and "the month we sing."

A late part of the European "discovery" of America was the discovery of the fit between a native language and its place of origin. On his trips into the Maine woods, Thoreau made a point of learning the Penobscot and Abenaki names of birds, plants, and places from his Indian guides. He learned that the native name for the fish he knew as "pout" described its habit of leading its young as a hen leads her chicks-- something he had himself observed but never found in any book. From the Abenaki words for fir branches (sedi) and the act of spreading fir branches on the ground for a bed (sediak), he understood not only a relationship, but a different way of seeing.

"It was a new light when my guide gave me Indian names for things for which I had only scientific ones before," Thoreau wrote in his journal. "In proportion as I understood the language, I saw them from a new point of view. . . . A dictionary of the Indian language reveals another and wholly new life to us."

The idea that language shapes the way we see and understand the world was popularized in the 1930s as "linguistic relativity" by linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. "We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way," Whorf explained. "All observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated." Every language, he said, has its own pattern-system by which its speakers not only communicate but also analyze nature, notice or neglect certain relationships, and channel reasoning. Without the words or structure to articulate a concept, that concept won't occur. Likewise, if a language is rich in ways to express certain sorts of ideas, then its speakers will habitually think along those linguistic paths. The picture of the universe, Whorf insisted, shifts from tongue to tongue.

Much of Whorf's work was centered on Hopi, which differs dramatically from Indo-European languages in its treatment of time. Instead of rigid past-present-future tenses, Hopi divides time into two modes: objective (the manifest, or things that exist now) and subjective (the unmanifest, things that can be thought about or are in a state of becoming). In Hopi, as in many Native American languages, fixed temporal points are less important than process, possibility, and the cyclical nature of time. This linguistic structure reflects and reinforces Hopi cultural values, so that a person living in that language understands and responds to the world differently than does an English speaker who attaches -ed or -ing to verbs.

Whorf's somewhat circular theory--that a person speaks this way because he thinks this way because he speaks this way--turned out not to be provable by scientific methods, and has since been largely discredited. But it did change the way we think about language. In Whorf's time, many people still believed that the languages of "primitive" cultures were "undeveloped." Whorf demonstrated that there are no primitive languages, only languages with varying emphases. "Many American Indian and African languages abound in finely wrought, beautifully logical discriminations about causation, action, result, dynamic or energic quality, directness of experience, etc., all matters of the function of thinking, indeed the quintessence of the rational," he wrote. "In this respect they far outdistance the European languages." He cited, for example, the Native American rendering as verbs many words we know in English as nouns; this system, he argued, was better suited for understanding dynamic states and what we might think of as the science of physics. He pointed as well to the four persons of Algonkian pronouns, which allow clear and compact reference to complex social relationships, an African tense distinction between events with and without present results or influences, and, among the Coeur d'Alene Indians of Idaho, the use of three verb forms that discriminate between different causal processes.

Similarly, although the Wintun Indians of California disregard tense, they tag their verbs with suffixes to specify whether what they're conveying is known by direct experience or hearsay. Certain Australian languages that appear to lack the words for describing spatial relationships--no "in front of" or "beside"-- rely on an absolute frame of reference, coordinates that establish the world as one big grid.

Although every person with normal vision sees the same spectrum of light, not all cultures recognize the same colors. Some languages, like that of the Dani of New Guinea, identify only two--black and white, or dark and light. Navajo, like Latin, distinguishes between the black of darkness and the black of coal; it has one word for gray and brown, includes some of what we would call "green" in its word for blue, and others in its word for yellow. Experiments have demonstrated that people from cultures with large and precise color vocabularies are better able to remember and pick out colors they have been previously shown. Having words for colors helps us remember them.

Everyone knows the axiom that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow. Although this has been overstated--actually, Eskimo languages don't have all that many root words for different kinds of snow, but form specialized words by building on root words--it is still true that people in northern climates speak of (and thus also see and consider) their ice- and snowbound environments with a keen precision. There are important survival distinctions to be made between a snow that can easily be cut into blocks for building shelter and one that will soon turn to rain. Alaska's Aleuts have a word that translates as "the snow that melts the snow," to designate the wet snowfall of spring--that which hastens the melt of the old snow beneath it. (Since I learned this concept, I've come to think of spring snow with a new appreciation, a more accepting attitude toward winter's end.) In sharp contrast, the Aztec language has a single word-- with different endings--for snow, ice, and cold.

Here at home, the Dena'ina have an entire lexicon with which to describe kinds of streams and trails. It makes a difference if a stream is a river, a tributary, the outlet of a lake, a straight stretch of water, a place of fast or slow current, covered with slush ice or overflow ice. Likewise, a trail is not just a trail; it's a packed-snow trail or a trail with snow drifted over, an animal trail, a snowshoe or sled trail, a trapline trail, or a trail used for getting wood.

The same wealth of Dena'ina language applies to salmon and other fish--not only the names of the fish but specialized words to distinguish between dried fish, half-dried fish, a bundle of dried fish, fish dried in one day's wind, fish dried with eggs inside, fish dried ungutted, fish dried flat, smoked fish, half-smoked fish, the backbone of the fish, the fish belly, the fat, the fatty part just in front of the king's dorsal fin, the roe, dried roe, fermented roe, frozen roe, salted roe, and roe soup. To know these words is to share in the universe of salmon.

Along my trail in Dena'ina country, I try to imagine how differently--or more clearly--I might see my world if I had the Dena'ina language precision with which to know my surroundings and my place in them. I look at a fern and think "fern." But if instead I thought of uh t'una, I would know that I was seeing and thinking about the leafy part of the plant, in contrast to uh, its underground parts used for food. And if I thought of another part of the plant, elnen tselts'egha (literally "ground's coiled rectum") I would find humor in the fiddlehead fern.

Unfortunately, few of these words are spoken anymore, one person to another in the course of daily living. Of the original five dialects of Dena'ina Athabaskan, one is long gone, the second's fluency died with Peter Kalifornsky, and two of the other three are spoken only by elders. Only one, in an isolated village, is still spoken by young adults. What remains of the various dialects has been assembled in dictionary form by linguist James Kari of the University of Alaska's Native Language Center. If not for Kari, Dena'ina words would be scattering silently and irretrievably into the winds.

Once there were between 10,000 and 15,000 languages in the world. Today there are barely 6,000, and half of those are no longer being learned by children and will probably become extinct within the next century. "They are beyond endangerment," says University of Alaska linguist Michael Krauss. "They are the living dead."

Of North America's 300-some Native languages, about 210 are still spoken. (About 50 of those are in California, the world's most linguistically diverse region after New Guinea and the Caucasus.) Very few of the 210 are, however, still spoken by children. Even Navajo, by far the largest language group with 200,000 speakers, appears to be in trouble. A generation ago, 90 percent of Navajo children entering school spoke their language; today, the reverse is true--90 percent of Navajo children entering school speak English, but not Navajo. In Alaska, only two of the 20 Native languages are still spoken by children and one language--Eyak--has one remaining elderly speaker. Krauss believes that despite bilingual programs in schools, all Native American languages are today threatened.

The cause, of course, is the unfinished conquest of Native peoples and the eradication of their cultures. Even after the wars and removals ended and were replaced with assimilation policies, most white Americans believed that Natives would be best off abandoning their "inferior" cultures and adopting the English-only, mainstream American one. Until the 1960s, Natives were forbidden to speak their own languages in schools, and children were punished for doing so. Parents were told that they were holding their children back by speaking their languages at home, and so they too were silenced.

Even the best bilingual programs can't compensate for traditional family-to-child language learning. Language loss is further exacerbated by the influence of television and "global culture." At this late date, perhaps the best that can be done is to teach Native languages as second or even third languages, so that coming generations can learn enough of their ancestral tongues to maintain respect for them and for their heritages, and to continue some ceremonial and artistic uses.

Preservation, Tlingit oral historians Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer remind us, is what we do to berries in jam jars and salmon in cans. Preserved foods are different from thriving berry patches and surging runs of salmon, and dictionaries are not the same as speech. Books and recordings can preserve languages, but only people and communities can keep them alive.

Most people are now aware of and concerned about the mass extinction of animals and plants. We understand the need for diversity, and the imperative to protect what we can. As with species, once a language is lost it is gone forever. Every extinguished language diminishes the world by robbing us of the ability to know that world with the millennia of accumulated wisdom of groups such as California's Pomo, or the New Guinea Dani, or the Gwich'in of Alaska.

Back at my fishcamp, the sky opens, and a hard, dumping rain pounds onto the metal roof, the alders, the squally inlet. When the rain stops I walk behind the cabin to pick fireweed shoots for a salad. The air is fragrant with plant oils and wet earth, and all the leaves and grasses are magnified by the droplets caught in their creases and dangling from their tips. A warm white light suffuses the breaking clouds; its shafts pierce the mosaic of green and gray inlet waters. There's a Dena'ina word for this--this fresh-scrubbed, brightened, new-world look. Htashtch'ul. The world everywhere after a rain looks fresh and lovely, but to have a word to put to it--a word that came from this land, that is as native as the blue-backed salmon and alder thickets, that tells me what the first people saw and what significance they gave by naming it--makes me feel even more a part of this place.

Words have power. Languages connected to place help us to respect local knowledge, to ask and answer the tough questions about how the human and nonhuman can live together in a tolerant and dignified way. They can help us extend our sense of community, what we hold ourselves responsible for, what we must do to live right and well.

The Dena'ina greeting is Yaghali du? "Is it good?" Not, "How are you?" but, "Is it good?" There is, in the question, the assumption that something larger is at stake than the feelings of the two speakers, something less anthropocentric, less egocentric. If it is good, then we shall all--me, you, our community, the larger world--prosper together, not the one individual at the expense of others.

Yaghali du? Yaghali du? The answer we want is Aa' yaghali. Yes, it is good. It is all good.

Nancy Lord lives in Homer, Alaska, where she fishes for salmon.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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