Using language as a portal to the depths of cultural heritage

first_imgAlaska Native Arts & Culture | Arts & Culture | Education | History | Southcentral | University of AlaskaUsing language as a portal to the depths of cultural heritageDecember 5, 2015 by Jenny Neyman, KDLL Share:What do a person, a dog, a shaman effigy and a crucifix have in common?To a traditional Dena’ina speaker, all four are in a linguistic classification that categorizes them as sharing a similar essence.“In Dena’ina thought, what’s common is they are all animate, they are all alive, they all have a soul,” says anthropology professor Alan Boaraas.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,” Boraas says.“What is it that’s embedded in the grammar of a language, Dena’ina in this case, that conveys a message, a point of view, a feeling, that is difficult put into English? And often is lost, as they say, in translation.”The problem of “lost in translation” is much more significant than just ordering something you didn’t quite expect in a foreign restaurant.“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.”Dena’ina elder Peter Kalifornsky and anthropologist Dr. Alan Boaraas. (Courtesy of the University of Alaska Anchorage)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.And that portal has almost been lost.According to anthropologists, Dena’ina has been one of the world’s most endangered languages, with just a handful of speakers left by the 1970s. But Boraas and linguist James Kari started working with a few of the remaining fluent elders to preserve the language, making recordings of the speakers, translating stories and turning the oral tradition into a written language.All that knowledge has coalesced into a curriculum for language classes, such as a beginning Dena’ina class taught this fall at the Kenai Peninsula College. Another class on grammar will be offered this spring.Share this story:last_img

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