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UAA works to preserve Alaska Native languages

Mike Dunham

What benefit can society at large receive from expending energy and resources on preserving endangered languages?

I had the chance to ask some experts that question before and after a panel discussion titled "Revisioning Alaska Native Languages at UAA: A Public Forum on SB 130" presented by the Alaska Native Oratory Society on Sept. 13. The program, in the University of Alaska Anchorage Arts Building, was intended to address how said SB 130 -- the new Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council Act -- might affect the university's efforts to teach indigenous languages.

The UAA Alaska Native Studies Department, which sponsored the event, is making what I consider heroic efforts in the often thankless quest to sustain or revive Alaska's indigenous languages.

This year, for the first time, language courses will include Dena'ina, the Athabaskan language that was once prevalent in the Anchorage area, taught by Marilyn Balluta. In addition, there are art courses taught by Emily Moore and a five-week Yup'ik drum-making course taught by Ossie Kairaiuak that starts Friday.

(Information on the courses and about the department can be found here.)

The panel included Balluta, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, Tlingit professor Shirley Kendall and department head Maria Williams, among others. Chancellor Tom Case was on hand to make some opening remarks.

Getting back to the above question, different people had different answers, most of which deserve their own exposition. But a consistent current -- one that has fascinated me for some time -- is the number of ways Alaska Native languages have for pulling back from making set-in-stone statements.

Instead, the future is generally addressed using language that an English speaker would find evasive. Yup'ik grammars and dictionaries, for instance, seem to include more ways of expressing exquisite shades of doubt than the oft-cited number of Eskimo words for snow.

Reluctance to make absolute statements has historically permeated Central Yup'ik to its core, though a kind of Englisization is occurring as voices on television replace grandparents as speakers of a child's first language.

In contrast, a kind of recklessness in making such statements may unconsciously permeate Western thought and it shows no sign of letting up.

To express awareness of facts and reality in English and other Indo-European languages, one uses some version of the "deep root" word "gno-", as in: "know," "diagnosis," "kin" (a person known to you), "noble" (one well known or well regarded), etc. To express any lack of certainty or understanding, speakers put in an extra step, adding a negative prefix, as in: "unknown," "ignoble," "agnostic."

In what linguists call the Eskimoan language group, however, it's the other way around. The deep root word is "na-", producing "nallu" in Yup'ik and "nalu" in Inupiaq. It means "to not know." To express the opposite, what English-speakers call "knowing," one has to add the negative suffix, as in "nallunritua," which translates as "I know," but literally means "I don't not know."

Insofar as how we speak reflects how we think, the primary Indo-European understanding of reality can be said to be based on a concrete (or presumed) positive comprehension of what exists, a kind of mental command and ownership -- i.e. knowledge. Anything less is considered something of a void, less than perfection.

But to the traditional Native Alaskan mindset, the natural state of thinking may be envisioned as a clean slate to be filled in carefully and only to the degree that clear information becomes evident and is evaluated. It suggests a fundamentally reverse way of looking at the same universe.

This may be why urban people get frustrated at the frequent "I don't know's" and "maybe's" encountered in the Bush. And why rural Alaskans -- whether they're Native speakers or not -- can react to outsiders as loud-mouth know-it-alls.

We are! But in Western culture knowing it all is considered a good thing, the foundation of learning and science. We automatically consider it to be the normal way of thinking. (In fact, some, not all, philologists have suspected "normal" as coming from "gno-".)

The Yup'ik paradigm doesn't dismiss knowing it all as a bad thing, necessarily. Just highly improbable -- and surely not normal.

I offer this as a hypothesis, having more ignorance than education on the matter. But the idea of these two diametrically opposed deep roots captures my attention, maybe because I work for a newspaper.

Journalism should follow the "na-" principle. One starts with a blank piece of paper on which he writes only statements that can be confirmed to mean exactly what the words say. It doesn't always work that way, particularly in the Internet age in which authorities and the media issue or repeat unconfirmed statements as if leaping to conclusions were an Olympic sport. Perhaps the world can benefit if we add a little "na-" to the prevailing "gno-"centric thinking.


Now that fall has officially begun, those digging out shovels and scrapers may ask, How many words for "snow" are in Inupiaq, anyway?

Some say there are 20 or 30 or even 100 and more. Lists pop up all over the Internet, like the following from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (huh?), citing Steve Culbertson, an Inupiaq language teacher at Eben Hopson Sr. Memorial Middle School in Barrow (O.K., that makes sense):

nutagaq: new fresh powder snow

qiqsruqaq: glazed snow in thaw time

sitliq: hard crusty snow

auksalaq: melting snow

aniu: packed snow

aniuvak: snow bank

natigvik: snow drift

qimaugruk: snow drift blocking a trail or a building

aqiluqqaq: soft snow

milik: very soft snow

mitailaq: soft snow on ice floe covering an open spot.

The Alaska Native Language Center's Comparative Eskimo Dictionary also includes:

pukak: granular snow

qannik: falling snow (similar to Yup'ik qanuk: snowflake, and qanir-: to snow).

The full lexicon varies widely from place to place and even speaker to speaker. Such multiplicity seems common among social groups familiar with cold. Norwegians also have scores of words to describe various forms of white precipitation, the forms it takes while coming down, when on the ground, when you're trying to work with it or around it, how humans and animals interact with it.

So do skiers and snowboarders. Crust, corduroy, crud, wet concrete, bulletproof, slush, powder and "phat pow" all have specific meanings. Others have noted that a lot of snow names used by those who sport in it seem to make some reference to food: Corn, death cookies, chicken heads, mashed potatoes. That's a topic for a different round of socio-linguistic commentary, preferably conducted over dinner.

Find Mike Dunham online at or call 257-4332.

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