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.