Wanna Google English modals?

Wanna find information on, say, the frequency of ‘wanna’ vs. ‘want to’ with Google? Check your results carefully, because Google now automatically assumes you mean ‘want to’ if you type in ‘wanna’ (caveat: at least a large percentage of the time. I tried multiple searches after figuring this out and all but one did it). I discovered this when looking up information on anthropologist Wanni Anderson* and kept getting pages where ‘wanna’ was nowhere to be found (and nothing like ‘wannabe’, either, that could’ve been a partial hit). Unless you put your search in quotes, ‘wanna’ brings up ‘want to’ as well as actual ‘wanna’ hits.

When did this happen? Since the folks over at Google don’t do the same with with ‘gonna’, ‘hafta’, ‘shoulda’, ‘oughta’, ‘musta’, etc., it’s a bit perplexing. Are they trying to increase hits or correct what they perceive as bad grammar? I suspect the first, yet I have to admit it bugs me a little that a search engine is programmed to assume I don’t mean what I type. And if it’s the second, they fell short of the mark by not including ‘gonna’ as well, which is right up there with ‘wanna’ as one of the most common English modals.

*Typos are my constant companions, and I typed Wanna Anderson accidentally at first. Hence finding “wanna” for the name Wanni.

Aleut license plate

Today’s Anchorage Daily News features an article on the approx. 40% increase in vanity license plates in Anchorage. I won’t trifle with your intelligence by suggesting that you read an article that can be summed up as: “Boy, lots more people are getting vanity plates, and aren’t the ones they come up with creative?” However, I did see a license plate the other day in Anchorage that made me do a double-take because it was in Aleut. Not that I would recognize 99.99% of Aleut words if they smacked me upside the head, but I was clued in by a license plate frame that said, “… is the Aleut word for ‘rain'” surrounding the actual plate, which said, “chxtax.” So the entire plate reads “Chxtax is Aleut for rain.” (Note: if I’m not mistaken the Aleut word for ‘rain’ is actually chixtax, but we have a 6-character limit on license plates in Alaska.)

Also, an Iñupiaq speaker I know has her Iñupiaq name on her license plate. It’s similar to this Aleut situation except that it doesn’t tell readers that it’s Iñupiaq if they don’t already know. She also had to leave out diacritics used in the Iñupiaq orthography because the Alaska DMV doesn’t permit them on plates (whether through accidental oversight involving the license plate font or actual “nothing but English!” policy, I’m not sure).

Why am I blogging about this? Well, while it isn’t any deep linguistic insight – not my forté in any case – I do find it encouraging in terms of increasing language awareness. If you go to Hawai’i, for example, you’ll see Hawaiian words everywhere, from street signs to menus. That alone won’t save Hawaiian from extinction, of course, but it does increase awareness. People in Hawai’i know that Hawaiian is the indigenous language and they’re by and large quite proud of it, even if they don’t speak it themselves.

In contrast, until recently seeing Alaska Native languages in Anchorage was a rarity. Many Alaskans are not aware of how many Alaska Native languages there actually are, or that people still speak them. Now awareness seems to be on the rise. For example, with plans to expand its convention center by building the Dena’ina Civic & Convention Center next door, the Municipality of Anchorage is acknowledging at least one of the Alaska Native languages from the area. The official website, interestingly, includes an attempt to change the pronunciation used by English speakers:

“The center’s name, Dena’ina (DEH-nah EE-nah), honors the rich culture of Dena’ina Athabascans, the Native people who first populated this area.”

The typical pronunciation in Alaska is either [dɪˈnaɪnə] or [dəˈnaɪnə], though, and unfortunately I doubt most people will change how they pronounce it now.

Anyway, I hope this trend of using Alaska Native languages in public venues continues and increases.

Iñupiaq on NPR

Iñupiaq was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered program yesterday in a story about how the software company Rosetta Stone has been working with elders to make Iñupiaq learning software. While the program didn’t really focus on the language itself, except to point out how Rosetta Stone software is flexible enough to handle a singular-dual-plural system, it’s nice to see software being developed for Alaska Native languages. I look forward to seeing the software when completed (if I get a chance, that is).

The story doesn’t mention which dialect or dialects are covered, but they interview native speaker Willy Goodwin in Kotzebue, so chances are it’s Malimiut Iñupiaq. At least in my experience, most (but not all) print and computer materials for Iñupiaq until now have been for the North Slope dialect, so it’s refreshing to see more materials for other dialects.

While I don’t think there’s any substitute for learning a language from other speakers – I guess what you’d call ‘the old-fashioned way’ – I think Rosetta Stone is doing a laudable thing by creating software for indigenous languages, using culturally appropriate content. The NPR program also points out that unlike its other language software, Rosetta Stone programs for indigenous languages give control of the software’s distribution to the indigenous people themselves. That means that the Iñupiat people, not the Rosetta Stone company, decide how this software will be used, and therefore make their own decisions about the transmission of culture.

Hats off to the Iñupiat elders, community members, and Rosetta Stone staff for their hard work!

(I noticed one minor terminology error in the NPR program: the Iñupiat people aren’t Native American, they’re Alaska Native. There are Native American peoples in Alaska (and they are also Alaska Native), but Eskimo-Aleut people aren’t usually called Native American.)

Preparing for fieldwork

Well, it’s the end of the semester, and I’m trying to finish up papers as soon as possible. Mostly so that I can put more time into preparing for my summer fieldwork! I’ll be working with a Malimiut dialect Iñupiaq speaker again, and if I’m lucky, more than one consultant this time. Looking forward to it, although I have a list of questions as long as my arm. So many topics to explore, so little time.

While digging around online this evening, though, I ran into a lovely little distraction: Project Jukebox at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I’ve seen some of the sites before but hadn’t realized they were part of a larger project. About half of them are collections of oral history recordings. All the ones I saw were in mp3 format, so not the best for phonetic work, but valuable for many other reasons, of course (both culturally and linguistically). And almost all of them have transcripts, too. Bonus!

North Slope Iñupiaq: Marvin Peter Photo Album Project

North Slope Iñupiaq: Chipp-Ikpikpuk and Meade Rivers Oral History Project

Gwich’in: Gileech’agarohookhyaa Shro’ (Don’t Forget the Past)

Cup’iq: Nunivak Island

Koyukon Athabaskan: Tanana Tribal Council

Central Alaskan Yup’ik: Yupiit School District Project Jukebox

Some Yup’ik, some Alutiiq (I think? I saw more than one language mentioned, but please correct me if I’m wrong.): Katmai National Park

Of course, my Iñupiaq being as poor as it is, I don’t have a prayer of understanding anything in the Iñupiaq recordings, but I can try, right? What a wonderful resource to have at our fingertips.