The Tlingit Language

Chʼa yéi gugéinkʼ áwé a kaax̲ shukaylisʼúx̲
haa tlagoo k̲wáanxʼi aadéi s k̲unoogu yé.
— Kichnáalx̲

We have only uncovered a tiny portion
of the way our ancient people used to do things.

— George Davis, Deisheetaan

The Tlingit language is medicinal in its importance to Tlingit people. During Tlingit ceremonies, we see that the language literally brings the deceased into the room, involving them in ceremony and connecting them to sacred clan property (at.óow). Some of these concepts are important to understand when placing yourself on the path to becoming a speaker in this language. You should know that there is an incredible challenge in learning Tlingit, but also that there is nothing more meaningful in the world than giving yourself to this culture and language. Those of us who choose to speak, to put ourselves at risk of error, frustration, and endless attempts to understand concepts that do not translate well into English, will be the ones who will attempt to hear our ancient ones and to imitate them.

After spending half my life with this wonderful language and the courageous people who teach, learn, and understand the language, I have come to the conclusion that anyone can and should learn it. You have to work at it every single day, though, and make it a vital part of your life. With that, I offer the following tips for your consideration.

Spend time with language speakers of different levels and backgrounds.

There are many ways to speak Tlingit, but the best ways come from those who grew up speaking. We might often feel most comfortable among our peers, but we need to seek out our elders and see how the language lives in those who were born with it.

Remember that there are multiple interpretations of words, phrases, speeches, stories, and more. Just because someone says it is one way, or a book has it written as one way, does not make it the only way it could be.

Fill your life with language.

Tlingit is becoming more and more rare in the world we live in, so you need to be an active member of the language community and help put the language everywhere. The language always lives on the land on which it was born, but we still must fight to keep it here: seen, heard, felt, for everyone.

If you are not near speakers, then seek out recordings. Especially valuable are recordings that have transcriptions and translations that you can study on your own. Listen carefully and read along, then read out loud and try to mimic the pacing, tone, and emotions of the speaker you have listened to.

Speak it everywhere you go. It does not matter if anyone else can understand you. It does not matter if you are making mistakes. What matters is you are trying and you are creating the language in your life.

Study whenever you can.

In order to become a speaker in the language, you must carve out a huge portion of your life and give it to the language. This means adjustments. The world around you is flooded with content that is English-only, and your duty becomes finding or creating a world that has space for Tlingit.

A colleague of mine, K̲aashax̲íshdi (Roy Mitchell), has said that in order to learn a language it must become one of the top three things in your life. You should realize that level of commitment and adjust your time and commitments accordingly.

Have fun and realize how important you are.

You will likely find yourself with more questions than answers, so find ways to stay positive and see how far you are pushing yourself rather than trying to see where you think you need to go.

Remember that endangered languages have baggage, and some people might take their anger out on you during your language journey. That energy is not what you need to succeed, so find ways to keep it from affecting you too strongly.

Balance the sacred activities with the fun ones. Our language is endangered, but that does not mean every use of it requires a ceremony or that you cannot have fun. The humor that our ancestors had is still with us today, and the more you can play with the language the more you will discover things on your own within the deeper grammatical and structural patterns of the language.

Our language is endangered, yes, but you will not break it. The only way to kill it off is to not speak it, and the only way to keep it alive is to speak it. As a speaker of this language, you are the most sacred thing to the Tlingit thought-world. You are the link between everything we have ever been and everything we are about to become. You are a gift. You are sacred. You will rebuild a house for our grandchildren, and teach them the stories that exist in the gáasʼ (houseposts), the x̲ʼéen (house screen). No matter what has ever happened or been said to or about you, you are just what we need.

Mockingbirds do not know grammar, but Eagles and Ravens do.

You can go a long way in the language without internalizing the grammar, but if you do that you can only really memorize and repeat things. The beauty of language is in grammar. You can memorize all the nouns and phrases you need, and should keep doing so, but you need the verbs in order to communicate and really understand how our ancestors used the language. Familiarity with grammar and metaphorical concepts is what made someone a great speaker of the language.

At this point, nearly everyone who studies ends up harboring the canoe well before achieving fluency, and that comes from an avoidance of verbs and grammar. So keep going, keep asking questions, and know that you will get it if you keep going.

Take it easy and enjoy the view along the way.

Sometimes we get caught up in dying language syndrome. This can result in feeling overwhelmed because there is so much to do in seemingly so little time. Or perhaps we might feel like we have to learn it all right now, that the weight of all of this is on us as an individual to make or break it. We might end up doing more crying in English than speaking in Tlingit, so we have to be wary of the trap that endangered languages face.

With that, keep in mind that language acquisition is a bit of a strange process. You might feel like you are going nowhere at all, but then suddenly understand a lot of what is being said. You probably know more than you think.

Do not quit. Do not walk away.

The Tlingit Language Family

Tlingit is a language indigenous to Southeast Alaska, Northwestern British Columbia, and Southwestern Yukon. It is one branch of the massive Na-Dene language family, the other being Eyak-Athabascan. Recent studies estimate there are approximately 225 speakers of the language today, and this text is part of a larger movement dedicated to increasing that number.

The following chart, created by Dzéiwsh, shows how Tlingit is related to other languages. Tlingit is on its own branch in the Na-Dene language tree because it separated from the others long ago, and developed into a language that shares many patterns but is quite different than its relatives. Studies have shown it to be closer to Eyak than other languages in the tree, but even that shows only distant grammatical similarities. If you learn one of the Na-Dene languages, then you have similar sounds and grammatical patterns, but the ease of learning another depends upon the closeness of the languages and the dedication of the learner. Knowledge of one only gives a sense of patterns and second language acquisition skills. Tlingit and the other languages on this tree are mutually unintelligible.

 

The Tlingit Dialects 

Within the language there are four main dialects: TongassSouthern, Transitional, and Northern. Tongass was spoken mainly in the Ketchikan area, but no longer has any speakers. Southern has a small number of speakers, perhaps ten, and consists of two branches: Sanya (Wrangell) and Henya (Prince of Wales). Transitional contains coastal variations (Wrangell, Kake, Angoon) and inland variations (Teslin, Carcross). Greater Northern consists of Central (Petersburg, Hoonah, Sitka, Juneau, Klukwan, Haines, Skagway), Gulf Coast (Yakutat, Dry Bay), and Inland (Atlin).

The largest difference is between Tongass and the others, although there are significant differences between Southern and Northern. These differences primarily occur in tone, vowel length, contractions, and prefixes. In many communities there are different words for the same things, so dialect differences should always be respected. If you encounter conflicts, go with the native speaker of the area you are from and note the differences. Our ancestors enjoyed these differences; it is a non-Tlingit way of looking at things to believe that different dialects (or writing systems, for that matter) could ever divide us as Tlingit people. Most language materials are developed in the Greater-Northern-Central dialect, but can be adjusted to fit others.

When you are learning Tlingit, do not be frustrated by dialect differences. Instead, let it pique your curiosity and try to keep track of these differences and what they might mean in the history and development of our language. Go with what speakers in your region give you in terms of instruction, and respect the differences within each dialect. For more information about dialects and differences, see the works of Crippen and Leer, who have studied these differences extensively. For examples of the extinct dialect of Tongass, see the Leer recordings of Frank & Emma Williams, which can be found online at the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (www.uaf.edu/anlc). The following chart, created by Dzéiwsh, shows the Tlingit dialect tree.

 

Words of Encouragement

Our elders want, more than anything, for us to succeed. Whenever you are struggling, just remember that there are people out there who believe in you, who are confident that you are going to continue going down the path of becoming a speaker of Tlingit. If you are not sure whether you are a speaker or not, remember this: a speaker is someone who speaks the language, regardless of level. You know you have to continue improving, but you should always remember that you are a speaker of this language if you commit to using it regularly. The way to internalize Tlingit language sounds, concepts, and knowledge is to listen and speak, pray about it, take it with you everywhere. If you make it a regular part of daily life, then the pieces will connect your mind, spirit, body, and the language itself.

We are recovering the Tlingit language, and through that are rediscovering methods of teaching, learning, listening, and speaking. There have not been birth speakers of Tlingit in half a century, and if we are going to survive as a language and culture, then we are going to have to figure out how to change that dangerous trend.

Part of that comes from speaking Tlingit to our young and newborn children, at times exclusively. And a bigger part comes from those who have grown up speaking only English—even those who understand Tlingit but do not speak. Those ones, the Tlingit Second Language (TSL) speakers, will have to make the giant conversion over to thinking in the language of our grandparents.

These things can happen. These things will happen. We must make them happen ourselves by giving language learning and teaching all that we have got, and holding on to a language that has grown in our land for tens of thousands of years. It is something too sacred to let go of, and something too close to dying to ignore any longer.

I asked one of my dearest teachers to give a message to students of the language, and this is part of what she said:

Yee gu.aa yáx̲ xʼwán.
Yee léelkʼu hás x̲á yee x̲ʼéit has wusi.áx̲ yeedát.
Yee gu.aa yáx̲ xʼwán.
G̲unéi ax̲ tu.aadí tsu.
Yee gu.aa yáx̲ xʼwán.
Uháan áyá, haa léelkʼu hás,
has du ítx̲ yaa ntu.át
Yee gu.aa yáx̲ xʼwán.
Ldakát yeewháan.
— Shgaté

 

Have strength and courage, all of you.
Your grandparents are really listening to you now.
Have strength and courage, all of you.
We are beginning to walk along it, too.
Have strength and courage, all of you.
It is us, our grandparents,
we are the ones following them.
Have strength and courage, all of you.
Every one of you.
— Jessie Johnnie, Chookansháa

 

George Davis quote from: Dauenhauer, Nora & Richard, trans. “Because We Cherish You …” Sealaska Elders Speak to the Future (Juneau: Sealaska Heritage Foundation Press, 1981), 53-53a.

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