Last week was Indigenous Peoples Day. To celebrate and support indigenous peoples, we dug around some of the indigenous languages in North America to glean some linguistic – and philosophical – insights.
A lot of the characteristics you will see are actually shared among the languages, but their salience and affinity with the history and culture of each tribe varies. Have fun and learn something you didn’t know about seven of the first nations to exist in North America.
1. Tsalagi Gawonihisdi (Cherokee Language)
No need for long-winded conversations or text here. In what we know in English as the Cherokee language, spoken in North Carolina and Oklahoma, every part of a sentence can be expressed in just one word.
On top of that, there’s a fair chance that that single word will be a verb. Verbs make up 75% of Cherokee lexicon – for comparison, in English, that figure is just 25%.
So, here’s to getting to the point quickly – and action!
2. Keres Language
This may be a tricky indigenous language to pin down, as it actually consists of a family of dialects. If that makes it sound a little elusive, we should add that many speakers believe Keres is sacred, and should therefore only be spoken, never written.
The reasoning behind this belief is the value placed on connection and storytelling, accomplished through oral history. However, Keres speakers ultimately devised literacy programs in their native New Mexico communities, in the name of preservation.
3.Séliš (Salish Language)
One distinctive characteristic of the Salish language is a focus on the knowledge of the speaker, as opposed to knowledge that may – or may not – be shared between speaker and listener. For example, the use of “a” or “the” in English makes an assumption about the listener’s familiarity with the subject.
In Salish, these kinds of subtle linguistic assumptions about the mental state of the listener are absent – which can be quite a worthwhile lesson! In the case of our example, you would find that the Salish language uses the same article for familiar and unfamiliar subjects.
4. Hinónoʼeitíít (Arapho Language)
First thing’s first, let’s work out the name of this language in its native pronunciation: Hih-no-no-EH-dee-uht. In English, it’s known as the Arapho language, especially in Wyoming and Oklahoma, where the Arapho people reside.
Now, the peculiarity we’re going to look at is the fact that in the Arapho language, nouns can be animate or inanimate. Animacy, here, is contingent on movement, not actual aliveness. This gives language a dimension of description we don’t experience in English.
5. Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe Language)
This language is spoken in the region of the Great Lakes by Anishinaabe peoples, including the Ojibwe people. It’s written with shapely glyph symbols and spoken with imagery that is just as beautiful.
For example, the greeting “Aanin”, in literal terms, means you acknowledge the light within your listener, and that it is the same light that exists within yourself. Charming, huh?
6. Diné Bizaad (Navajo Language)
In Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, you will find members of the Navajo Nation. Their language is marked by an exploration of vowel sounds we don’t see in English. For instance, it’s important to note the length of time you hold a vowel when speaking, because that can tinker with your message.
If you have trouble with verb conjugation in foreign languages, beware! Because, in Navajo, verb conjugation doesn’t just follow time, but mood.
7. Wôpanâak (The Massachusett Language)
The historical collaboration in translation and education between speakers of Massachusett and English changed the cultural landscape in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. The result was an indigenous population that was esteemed for its high level of literacy.
Working together so closely led to the adoption of some Massachusett words in English. The word “pumpkin”, for example, comes from the Massacshusett term “pôhpukun”!
Get Curious and Grow On Indigenous Peoples Day
Thanks for celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day with us!
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