Language loss and climate change in Shishmaref

**blowing dust off blog**

It’s been a while, but this article on CNN reminded me to post here. It’s on the effect of climate change on an Inupiat village named Shishmaref in northern Alaskan. Shishmaref, like several coastal villages in Alaska, is rapidly falling into the sea due to increased water levels, melting sea ice, and erosion. I think what makes the article good is that it’s not so one-sided as most similar articles. It explores many aspects of the village’s impending slide into the ocean, including the effects on the Inupiaq dialect spoken there. There are also some short audio clips of Shelton Kokeok speaking the Shishmaref dialect. The article’s take on language loss isn’t perfect, of course, because it assumes the language loss is entirely due to climate change, but it’s the first time I’ve seen an article on climate change address language issues. If anyone knows of others, please drop a line.


Yup’ik election follow-up

As a follow-up to my post about voting in Alaska Native languages, here’s an article about how the elections went with the state-mandated translation support. (Yes, it’s now over a month out of date, but my blogging activities have been on the back burner. Maybe even on a burner in an outbuilding in a neighboring town.)

Anyway, the gist of it is that while the efforts were well-intended, they weren’t without problems, at least for Yup’ik (the article doesn’t mention anything about voting materials in other Alaskan languages). Mistranslations and translations that ignored rather important dialectal differences meant voters weren’t always sure what they were voting for. An example given in the article is this:

The state’s translation for the predator control initiative used the word “takukaq.” In one Yup’ik dialect, that means “brown bear” but in a coastal dialect, it means “seal,” the lawyers said.

“As a result, voters on the coast (a predominately Yup’ik-speaking area) read a ballot that indicated seals would be shot because they had been consuming too many moose calves and were depleting the population — a nonsensical prospect,” lawyers wrote in a motion filed in U.S. District Court last week.

In spite of the problems, I applaud the state for trying to meet voters’ needs in indigenous languages. After the court decision, they were on somewhat of a constrained timeline to get materials out in time for elections. I also hope improvements can be made. Still, it’s not like there aren’t wording mistakes or ambiguous verbiage on ballots in other languages, so it’s not too surprising that it happens in Yup’ik, too.

More baffling are readers’ comments on the article, many of which demand that Yup’ik speakers just “learn English already” or go back to their own country. Sigh… apparently they missed the part about Yup’ik being an Alaska Native language, or the quote from the Native American Rights Fund.

Linguistics Halloween costume

My blog stats tell me someone found my blog while searching for “linguistics halloween costume.” Now I’m dying of curiosity – who was looking for a linguistics Halloween costume, and did they find anything? Or did they come up with something of their own, such as:

On a related note, yesterday a student who couldn’t remember my name called me Miss Linguistics. Sounds like a good superhero/Halloween costume idea to me.

Since when is Aleut Eskimo?

A lot of people on various linguistics listserves are talking about an article on BBC, Why you should avoid ‘mingqutnguaq’, on the always popular “how many words do the Eskimos have for snow?” topic. The article brings nothing new to the table, really, but this is the part that really stood out to me:

Yup’ik has three dialects: Central, Siberian and Alutiiq there [Alaska].

There are also two other Eskimo languages apart from Yup’ik: Inupiat and Aleut, and that means plenty of ways of referring to snow and ice.

Really? Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Siberian Yupik, and Alutiiq are dialects of the same language? That’s news to me. The journalist apparently went to the trouble of consulting a Yup’ik dictionary by the Alaska Native Language Center, but didn’t think to check his other language information. See a list of Alaska Native languages here on the ANLC’s website. (Another minor quibble is that the language name is Iñupiaq, not Iñupiat. Iñupiat are the people who speak Iñupiaq.)

While it’s perhaps not too strange that the author confuses dialect and language – after all, the division is subjective at best and often political (yes, Scandinavia, I’m looking at you) – the strangest part is that the author refers to Aleut as an Eskimo language. Aleut is not Eskimo. The language family is called Eskimo-Aleut for a reason: Aleut (which is Unangam Tunuu in Aleut) doesn’t fall within the Eskimo group. Culturally the Aleut people are distinct from Eskimo peoples as well. Journalists are fond of writing about Eskimo words for snow, but it would be nice if they got their basic facts straight.

Voting in Alaska Native languages

Well, in five of the remaining nineteen (living) languages, anyway.

After a judge ordered in July that the state of Alaska must provide Yup’ik language assistance to voters, I was curious to see how the state would follow up. I’ve just found a nice website, Alaska Native Vote, with voting terms in (Central Alaskan) Yup’ik as well as four other Alaska Native languages: Iñupiaq, Gwich’in Athabascan, Koyukon Athabascan, and Siberian Yupik.

Of course, one can only wonder to what extent this will reach the primarily elderly monolingual speakers, but it’s a start. I don’t have time to track it down now, but I’ve heard they’re also broadcasting voting assistance on local radio stations. According to the ACLU and news sites, the judge ordered that the state must provide

trained poll workers who are bilingual in English and Yup’ik; sample ballots in written Yup’ik; a written Yup’ik glossary of election terms; consultation with local tribes to ensure the accuracy of Yup’ik translations; a Yup’ik language coordinator; and pre-election and post-election reports to the court tracking the state’s efforts

Alaska Native Vote provides a printed Yup’ik glossary as well as sound files in five languages, so it has a wider audience than just the Yup’ik assistance that the judge ordered. The same material is available on the Division of Elections website. Admittedly, it took a judge to get the state to provide it, but I have to say it looks like they’re now doing an admirable job getting voting information out there in various languages.

Ironically, one of the objections raised by the Division of Elections was that providing Yup’ik language voting assistance in the Bethel area would be too much work, yet they have had all sorts of voting material in Tagalog on their website for a lot longer time (due Alaska’s sizable Filipino community – why they don’t also have Samoan and Korean is a mystery). Oddly, many city and state services, like public health offices, have material in Samoan, Korean, Tagalog, and Russian, but rarely in any of the indigenous languages. From a demand point of view, it’s probably true they have very few clients coming in wanting help in Deg Xinag, but there are thousands of Yup’ik speakers across the state. The state’s other main argument, of course, was that providing Yup’ik ballots alone would do very little, since many, if not most, elders are literate in English but not Yup’ik (having never received schooling in Yup’ik). That’s a valid argument, I think, but only as a reason for not providing only written assistance. The judge’s decision that the state must provide reasonable audio assistance solved the problem by requiring oral assistance as well.

Finally, when you click on the website’s navigation links at the top, the image in the top left corner changes, each with a different ethnonym. I’m very impressed that the website’s creators got the diacritics correct! Not all of the Alaska Native groups are listed – Aleut, for example, isn’t represented – but quite a few are. Iñupiaq has its tilde (although in some dialects, the nasal isn’t palatal), and they have separate images for Yup’ik (geminate; specifically means Central Alaskan Yup’ik) and Yupik (non-geminate; here refers to Siberian Yupik), with Cup’ik to boot!

(images © Get Out The Native Vote, 2008)

Frak and invective coinage

CNN is currently running a story about the word frak, created for the original Battlestar Galactica series in the 1970s as a way to swear but still get around TV censors. I hadn’t realized frak had been around quite so long – although perhaps I can be forgiven for not noticing it while watching the original BG as a kid – but I have noticed more and more TV shows using it and other invented words to skirt the censors. (Good for them, too – I don’t see the point of censoring language in television and radio anyway.)

Anyway, what really caught my eye in the CNN article was this:

“You can’t get in trouble. It’s a made-up word.”

That says a lot about folk views on word coinage, doesn’t it? The implication is that anything made-up is not part of the language, even though pretty much everyone understands what it means. I’d love to explore more what the author means by made-up, too – is it only words like frak that weren’t free morphemes in English before?

One of the actors in the new Battlestar Galactica series has this interesting insight:

“I mean why are we not offended by ‘frak’ because it means exactly the same thing as the other thing?” said Bamber, who plays fighter pilot-turned-president Lee “Apollo” Adama. “So it raises questions about language and why certain words are offensive. Is it their meaning? … Clearly it’s not their meaning. Clearly it’s literally their sound.”

In Firefly, another scifi series, Joss Whedon had his characters swear in Chinese most of the time – another excellent censor-avoidance method – but also had recognizable variants of current English swear words, such as gorram for god damn. In that sense, it’s not so much made-up as tweaked for a particular purpose. Is it because swear words are a largely closed class of words that you can claim a new one isn’t a real word? At what point does something made-up become a legitimate, trouble-inducing member of the language?

Adventures in font mishaps: Iñupiaq “dictionary”

Now that I’m back from my Alaska Native Language Center archives trip (more on that in an upcoming post – the first archive where I’ve ever seen a shampoo bottle in the stacks), I’ve got some catching up to do. First off, I want to post about the by now infamous Webster’s Online dictionaries (not to be confused with Merriam-Webster, the reputable guys). After Jangari’s posts (#1, #2 and #3) about the ridiculous Webster’s Online Dictionary by Philip M. Parker, I couldn’t help but look up what copyrighted Iñupiaq materials might have been lifted. Sure enough, Parker has an online Inupiatun dictionary, an Inupiatun-English thesaurus for purchase, etc. [1]

What’s especially funny in this case is that Parker didn’t bother with fonts, so his Iñupiaq dictionary contains a lot of letters that don’t really exist in the current Iñupiaq orthography (and in many cases not in the phoneme inventory at all). It’s pretty obvious that the material was copied from legitimate sources such as Alaskool’s Iñupiaq dictionary because of the special font Alaskool produced. Their pre-Unicode font involved remapping keys on a standard US English keyboard. The Iñupiaq letter ġ (IPA /ʁ/) was mapped to the English b key, for example. Parker, however, either didn’t manage to get his hands on the Iñupiaq font or it didn’t occur to him another font might be necessary – my money’s on the latter – so his dictionary is chock-full of errors. The word aġnaq ‘woman’, for example, appears as abnaq in his dictionary. The only possible way he could have arrived at grossly and systematically misspelled words like this is if he took them from an online source using the Iñupiaq font.

What I can’t figure out, though, is why one lone Inuktitut word appears in Parker’s Iñupiaq dictionary. He’s got ᑭᖑᐃᖓᒃ (/kiŋuiŋak/, but I’m quite sure Parker’s got that wrong, too) listed as the Iñupiaq word for ‘peace’ and that’s just bizarre. Regardless of whether you think Iñupiaq is a separate language or just Inuktitut with a different name, Iñupiaq doesn’t use the Inuktitut abugida and never has. How on earth did he link ᑭᖑᐃᖓᒃ to Iñupiaq? The Iñupiaq cognate is qiñuiññaq (qiñuiñaq in Alaskool’s; probably dialectal gemination variation), and while I can see the similarity, it would never be written in anything but modified Latin script. Then again, when you’re busy pumping out books every ten minutes, you don’t have time to check whether or not you’ve even got the basics of your topic correct.

[1] Iñupiatun being an alternate name for Iñupiaq; it’s simply the similative case of ‘Iñupiaq’.