By Jenny Neyman
What do a person, a dog, a shaman effigy and a crucifix have in common?
Nothing obvious, to most people. But to traditional Dena’ina speakers, all four are in a linguistic classification that categorizes them as sharing a similar essence — of being alive, in a sense, or having a soul.
The idea doesn’t quite translate to English. It’s a facet of culture embedded in language, as subconscious as the grammatical structure a baby learns as they absorb the dialogue around them. It’s the cultural equivalent of, “You had to be there,” when the humor of a story doesn’t quite land for someone who wasn’t witness to the event being described.
Without speaking a language, without knowing it to the point where it is language — the ability create an infinite number of sentences without having heard them before — there’s a barrier to knowing the culture, as well.
“Embedded in the grammar of the language is messages that aren’t always there in the English translation. What is it that’s embedded in the grammar of language, Dena’ina in this case, that conveys a message, a point of view, a feeling, that is difficult put into English? I’m not saying impossible, but difficult. And often is lost, as they say, in translation,” said Dr. Alan Boraas, anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, while giving a presentation on empowerment through a deeper understanding of cultural perspectives Thursday at the Kenai River Campus as part of the college’s observance of American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month.
The problem of “lost in translation” is much more significant than just ordering something you didn’t quite expect in a foreign restaurant or the potential for making a slightly awkward cultural gaffe.
In linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis holds that the structure of a language determines or significantly influences the modes of thought and behavioral characteristics of the culture in which it is spoken. So for a Native Athabascan of the Cook Inlet region, Dena’ina isn’t just the language of their people, it is a portal to the full depths of their cultural heritage.
“The relationship between language and how you organize the world is subconscious as you learn language, and would become what we sometimes call human nature, which is why one culture’s human nature is not another culture’s human nature because the language is different. You can argue all you want what human language is but it really has to do with how you understand the grammar of the language as a filter for the world,” Boraas said.
And that portal has almost been lost. According to anthropologists, Dena’ina has been one of the world’s most endangered languages. Early territorial schools in Alaska didn’t let Native students speak in their own language as a way of assimilating students to Western culture, even meting out corporal punishment for infractions. The policy was crushingly effective in Kenai and across the Cook Inlet region. Within one generation, a language that had been spoken for a thousand years was caught on the tongues of elders who were too traumatized to teach it to their children.
And there wasn’t any other avenue of education available for the youth, as there wasn’t a written version of the language at the time. By the 1970s in Kenai, less than 10 speakers of the Outer Inlet (Kenai Peninsula) Dena’ina dialect remained.
Linguist James Kari did extensive work on the language in the 1970s, helping codify a written version of Dena’ina. He and Boraas worked with the remaining fluent elders, especially Peter Kalifornsky, to preserve the language, much of it in the form of traditional stories and making recordings of the elders speaking in their Native tongue. All of that knowledge has coalesced into curriculum for language classes, such as a beginning Dena’ina class, primarily focused on vocabulary, taught this fall at KPC, and another on grammar this spring to teach how to put words together.
That’s no easy feat in Dena’ina. It’s part of the Athabascan language group, which is one of the most complex in the world. (As an indication, the Code Talkers in World War II were Athabascan speakers.) For a child growing up among fluent speakers, the language and the cultural nuances it conveys would come naturally.
“The grammar of a language is subconscious. You all knew it in your head, somehow, and it is culturally significant. Grammar influences the way we organize the world and it does so in subconscious ways,” Boraas said. Continue reading