Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

In the “tri-cul­ture” of Santa Fe, it’s well known that nei­ther English nor Span­ish is the in­dige­nous lan­guage, but in other ar­eas of the United States, where Amer­i­can In­di­ans suf­fered far more dis­place­ment, many con­tem­po­rary res­i­dents are un­aware that in­dige­nous lan­guages are spo­ken ev­ery day in pri­vate homes as well as through lo­cal place names that have been in­cor­po­rated into the dom­i­nant cul­ture. For in­stance, Wis­sahickon is a Le­nape In­dian word for the “cat­fish stream” that runs through Philadel­phia, and the Mis­sis­sippi River’s name is the Angli­cized pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the Ojibwe word misi-zi­ibi, which means “Great River.”

“When­ever I give a pub­lic lec­ture in the United States,” Har­ri­son said, “I ask if they know what the lo­cal in­dige­nous lan­guage is of the place we’re sit­ting in. Most of the time, peo­ple don’t know what the in­dige­nous lan­guage prior to col­o­niza­tion was.”

In Tuva, a tiny state in Mon­go­lia, lo­cal rivers are so in­te­gral to the lan­guage that in or­der to say “go,” you must spec­ify whether you mean up­stream, down­stream, or across from the clos­est river. Tu­vans are yak herders and, like the rein­deer-herd­ing Tofa, have ter­mi­nol­ogy spe­cific to yaks, in­clud­ing ge­netic in­for­ma­tion used for breed­ing, such as color, body pat­tern, head mark­ing, and per­son­al­ity. Tu­vans, best known glob­ally for their throat-sing­ing, also sing to their yaks — not as en­ter­tain­ment but as a time­proven method of do­mes­ti­ca­tion.

“Liv­ing with Tu­vans,” Har­ri­son writes, “I learned that lan­guages thus come to re­flect lo­cal geog­ra­phy, not only in their vo­cab­u­lary but also in more deeply struc­tural ways, in their gram­mar. This knowl­edge is of­ten ac­cu­mu­lated over many cen­turies, and so geo­graphic terms can rep­re­sent an an­cient layer of cul­tural knowl­edge en­coded in a lan­guage.”

Har­ri­son re­cently came to Santa Fe with the En­dan­gered Voices Project to part­ner with the In­dige­nous Lan­guages In­sti­tute on a work­shop for ac­tivists from lan­guage hotspots around the globe; par­tic­i­pants re­ceived ad­vanced train­ing on how to re­vi­tal­ize lan­guages. Though he’s not an ex­pert on

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