Damped and Driven

It’s All Relative: Lakota Language
March 1, 2008, 9:12 pm
Filed under: Lakota Language and Culture, School

A few weeks ago I started taking a Lakota language class after school on Wednesdays through the local college in Mission, Sinte Gleska University (Spotted Tail University). It’s a great opportunity. I’m taking class again, which I enjoy and have missed. The main thing though is that the professor, Albert White Hat, is a tremendous repository of knowledge and stories. It’s worth it to take the class just to hear his stories.

The school district is paying for it too. The district wants teachers to learn about Lakota because they want Lakota language and culture incorporated more into our classes. There is a lot of evidence (and i would support it with my own observations in the classroom) that students who come from a traditional background, who have their culture to build themselves from, do better in school. The thinking is that if we can incorporate more Lakota into our classes, it would benefit student achievement. I think it is definitely worth trying and I’m going to try and incorporate aspects of Lakota culture into my class in the future. (This also bring up a very interesting topic, the relationship between Lakota culture, spirituality (not religion?) and language, and our status as a public school, but that will have to wait for another post.)

I feel like if some of those struggling students could just see that their culture and stories are so much more rich and noble and awesome than the gang garbage that they adopt instead, it could be such a rallying point, such a centering, motivating force. I feel like if those defiant students would just take that spirit and apply it to their education, to college, they could kick ass at it. They’re tough kids. Needless to say, its not something that i’ve found is easy to convince them of! And i digress.

I wouldn’t call myself a language person. As much as i chide people who describe themselves as “not a math person” i guess i’m not a language person. I’m an engineer; i have enough problems with English! I actually regret this quite a bit so i’ve at times forced myself to taste other languages: I took a bit of Latin and Russian in college, but not enough to be proficient, although i do feel like i have a lot better understanding of how languages in general work. So when the opportunity to take Lakota came around, it appealed to me.

There are a few things i’ve observed so far about the Lakota language that i find very interesting. One aspect is that in Lakota, you address people as relatives. So for example instead of saying something like “hello Mr./Ms. etc.”, in Lakota you say the equivalent of “hello cousin” It’s very cool and relates to the Lakota concept of family, but that deserves its own post outright.

Something really interesting that Albert told us about was that there are different “subcultures” as he called them of the language, i.e. there are different meanings for words in Lakota, depending on the background and experiences of the speaker. Part of this relates to the Missionaries who came about 150 years ago. They were the first to orthography-ify the language, the first to take the oral Lakota language and put it into a written form. In doing so, they shaped the meanings of words to suit their objective of missionary activities. Also, there were two main groups of missionaries, Catholics and Episcopalians, so there are in addition to the traditional meaning of words, often two different Christian interpretations, wow. There is another subculture that sprung up after alcohol began hitting the rez. Albert told us how words that might mean lazy came to have more specific meaning as hungovoer, etc. Its sad because not only is the language slipping, few Lakota speak it, but the meanings of many of the words have been twisted by Christian and other influences.

Another aspect that I find interesting from a grammatical standpoint is that the gender of the speakers plays a role in what they say in the same situation. I’ve run into words before in other languages with gender, grammatical gender, and seen how that can affect declensions, etc (yuck), but i hadn’t yet run into this.

For example: For one thing, from what i understand, the man will almost always talk first. If a man greets a man in Lakota, he might say Hau, tahansi, but if a woman addresses a man, she might say Sicesi, a different word and construction although same meaning. Also, there are different ending to words for male and female speakers. (Note: Lakota uses an alphabet of mostly English letters with diacritic(accent) marks to represent the different sounds. As of yet i have been unable to duplicate this on the computer, so take my spellings as a sketch of how the words sound.) Where i thought this got really interesting though is that Albert told us that many people who do speak Lakota actually use incorrect endings because with the disruption of families due to problems on the rez, many men grew up without dad around, and so only hearing a woman speak Lakota. In turn they adopted the female words and endings. I find this fascinating as not only is it that social problems and outside influences have introduced alternative meanings of words in Lakota, they have actually disrupted the grammar.

Conclusion: Lakota is very interesting and i’m looking forward to learning more about it. z