Wabanaki Languages 102

I wanted to study Wabanaki languages with Roger Paul as a way of decolonizing my mind.  Yesterday we began the second semester and already I am experiencing two challenges which seem directly related to this very decolonization process.

Wabanaki languages were spoken for thousands of years, and only more recently have been written, usually with the aid of outside linguists who were sent to each tribe and devised writing systems that differed from each other.  These writing systems are still in flux.  There is an “official” writing system for Passamaquoddy for example, exemplified in the online dictionary, but there are also phonetic systems that spell words more closely based on how they sound.  Roger really doesn’t care how we spell the words.  He grew up speaking the language, but only learned to write it as an adult.  He cares about how we pronounce and speak. So this is a shift from my own ingrained habit of learning more by seeing a word written, than by hearing it spoken. (Though of course, all babies learn to listen and speak before we learn to write. And we do learn to write the words as well.)

The second challenge is that Wabanaki words do not exist as fixed isolated units, but change form in relationship to the context and meaning. In the first semester, we studied lists of words (and a few phrases), beginning to create a basic vocabulary.  But in this semester, we will be studying sentences.  Words in relationship to each other.  And words as sentences–because a sentence might be expressed in one “word.”

As I think about it, I realize how much this may reflect underlying differences between Euro-centric culture and Indigenous culture here on this land.  Euro-centric culture is object oriented–taking things apart, categorizing them, defining them.  Indigenous culture is relational–nothing exists except in relation to everything else. Likewise, English words are more fixed in form, while Wabanaki words are relational.

Last semester, I gradually created a huge set of flash cards with all the words presented, so I could practice and learn them.  I created recorded excerpts of the words and their meanings, so I could listen to them (especially in the car) and get the pronunciations into my head. But now, we are stepping into a different sort of process. The change goes deeper.

Kuskicinuwatu?  (or) Gooskeejinuwadoo? (or) Do you speak a Native language?

Robins in berry tree

Robins hidden within the branches of a winter tree.




6 thoughts on “Wabanaki Languages 102

  1. Friends, I thought you would find Myke’s blog post interesting.

    Courtney, has your second friend has decided whether she will take or pass on that seat in our circle at this time? I think it’s perfectly fair to tell her the opening needs to expire (i.e., pass to someone who’s ready to go) if she’s still undecided, but I say that knowing nothing of the circumstances that have made her response take so much time.

    It will be a bloomin’ miracle if I join you on Monday. My MFC packet is due Thursday and, while I’m not in awful shape, I need every hour… If you think of it, all of you stand facing an imaginary me, and blow. It might be just enough wind at my back to make a critical difference! Lane

      • Wow, Myke! My undergraduate major was Linguistics, and I was fascinated by native languages. I studied Quechua for a year in college, which was my only exposure to them. It was through my work with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, about the relation of language to thought, that I got into philosophy. Benjamin Whorf, and especially his teacher, Edward Sapir, studied native languages extensively and used them as data for their theory. After college, I visited a reservation near my home town of Potsdam, NY, with the idea of documenting their language before it was lost. Unfortunately, I realized I needed more training than my BS had provided.

        I’d love to hear more about your learning!
        Jane (Thickstun)

  2. I applaud your efforts. Unfortunately I have no access to the necessary means of learning a native language, but I’m endlessly fascinated by the few Cherokee speakers I’ve had the good fortune to hear. Also, it’s fascinating to note that many ancient languages–I’m thinking specifically of Latin, since that’s where my own experience lies–were highly malleable as well, allowing the speaker to alter word position to an almost infinite degree without altering the underlying meaning of the words.

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