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Teachings from the Tree of Life, part 21: How Do We Keep Our Language Real?

Updated: May 23

Namebini-giizis (Suckerfish Moon)/Makwa-giizis (Bear Moon), February 12, 2024

 

"They Speak from a Great Distance" - a painting expressing the gap between old speakers and new learners of Anishinaabemowin.
"They Speak from a Great Distance" painting by Zhaawano Giizhik ©2024

 
"It is only through learning the language the way our ancestors spoke it that a clear line between Anishinaabe worldview and English can be maintained. The key to understanding our spiritual, cyclical relationship with nature and the world we live in is therefore to be found in learning the Anishinaabe language untainted by linear English grammar rules." 
- Zhaawano Giizhik, visual artist, jeweler, writer

"I grew up listening to the old people. They addressed the Great Spirit, explained why they were conversing with the deceased or the wind as mediator for people. Words were said like these things were alive. References seemed to be subjects and certain references were said to be alive. They didn't care about English grammar because they didn't know it. My questions are:  Why don't they write the words as they appear in the sentences word-for-word? And why don't they teach the actual sentence formation? Even if we are accustomed to read from left-to- right, why don't they teach the actual way it is spoken rather than teaching from translations? Why don't they teach it the way it's spoken rather than using the English language as the original base structure - which it is not? It seems that we are just reiterating the English language word-for-word...In that case it would seem like we are talking Ojibwe backwards..." 
-  Jessie Cree, Turtle Mountain Elder, Spiritual leader

"The Ojibwe language has given English the words “moccasin,” “toboggan,” “wigwam,” “moose,” “totem,” and “muskeg.” We’ve even met on the middle ground. We provided “musk” from “mashkiig,” or swamp, English provided “rat” and together we built a word for a swamp dwelling rodent that looks an awful lot like a rat—muskrat. If that’s not a fine example of cultural exchange I don’t know what is. 
-  David Truer, Ojibwe writer, in Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life.

Boozhoo!


I hear some people say that looking for (and constructing) new Anishinaabe words to describe items that in the old days did not exist in Anishinaabe izhitwaawin (Indigenous way of life) is a form of cultural appropriation. Incorporating Western concepts into our language is a bad thing, they say. It creates a barrier between us and the world of our ancestors. It kills the spirit of our language and our culture. Keep our language real, they say.


But is it really a form of appropriation, and is it really such a bad thing when neologisms invade our language?


Here's my 2 cents for today.


Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language, is an extraordinarily dynamic and descriptive language, and by using this extraordinary descriptive quality to construct new words is only enriching our language, not weakening it.

First if all, I think that "cultural appropriation" is a modern buzzword that is used both appropriately and (all too often) inappropriately. Appropriation typically takes place when a dominant group of people takes something from a minority group of people and incorporates it as their own. So, I'm not sure if when a minority group makes up new words to describe "foreign" concepts of dominant society in their own language can be regarded as a form of cultural appropriation. Reversed appropriation, perhaps?


I personally think that in order for a language to grow and be sustainable, it needs to incorporate names for things in our every day use. Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language, is an extraordinarily dynamic and descriptive language, and by using this extraordinary descriptive quality to construct new words is only enriching our language, not weakening it.


"To know the language is to truly comprehend its complete and complex nature. Only by speaking the language right we are able to mentally grasp the worldview and spiritual depth it reflects."

Purism, a rigid adherence to purity in language, is not always a good thing. An etymologic/semantic approach* to Anishinaabemowin however, is invaluable when it comes to understanding, truly comprehending, the language. To know the language is to truly comprehend its complete and complex nature and what it wants to convey. Only by speaking the language right we are able to mentally grasp the worldview and spiritual depth it reflects.


Anishinaabeg, during their migration journeys and throughout the ages, have always been adopting cultural habits and concepts and ceremonial items and people and clans from other tribes, including the Europeans and Americans. This accounts for the cultural, demographic, and (at one time in history) military strength of the Anishinaabeg. Anishinaabeg have always been adopters, so neologisms in themselves are no curse at all. Especially since their language energizes and replenishes itself and does not borrow foreign vocabulary. It's perfectly okay to have Ojibwe words for mars, elephant, monkey, bicycle, television, computer, projector, telephone, and what not.


What worries me more though, is how Anishinaabemowin teachers are killing the spiritual core of the language since the introduction of a grammar based on the very Western concept of animate/inanimate,** and a syntax that follows the English way of structuring a sentence. THAT is the real culprit. People learn the language but backward, and the spiritual depth and richness of Anishinaabemowin (and with it, Anishinaabe izhitwaawin) have (nearly) been lost forever. ***


The way new learners nowadays speak the language reminds me of Dunglish (Dutch English). The Dutch speak a form of very un-English English, directly translated from the source language, and sounding rather ludicrous in the ears of native speakers of the English language. True, languages are essentially tools for communication, but that doesn't mean that all languages are alike any more than all cultures are alike! We have to bear in mind that a different language is an entirely different way of encoding thought for transmission, and in many ways literally shapes the way we think. A language defines who we are, it reflects our cultural identity and worldview, and a language lost is an entire mode of thought lost to human knowledge. The words and the grammar are precious, a piece of understanding about us, the world, and our relationship to it.


"People nowadays learn the language but backward, and the spiritual depth and richness of our language (and with it, our culture) have (nearly) been lost forever."

It's no use to try returning to the old ways. Those are gone forever. But we owe it to ourselves to keep the language alive by letting in new words and concepts - and at the same time to keep it alive by acknowledging the spiritual depth it used to have when our great grandparents were still around and everybody in Anishinaabe Aki still lived off the land and followed the seasons and were still fluent in the language. We can't return to the old ways but we must learn to understand, and honor, the way our ancestors thought and saw the world. If we can't or willing to do this, Anishinaabe izhinamowin, the extraordinary rich and dynamic worldview we inherited from our forebears, will be forever lost to the next generations.


Miigwech gibizindaw, thank you for listening.


 

NOTES:


*Etymology deals with the origin of words and the historical development of their meaning. (Lexical) semantics focuses on analyzing meanings of words and relations between them.


**Animate/inanimate is a Zhaaganash (Western)-oriented concept expressed through formal grammar rules that (misleadingly) structure Anishinaabe languages by describing things as alive (possessing spirit) and dead (not possessing spirit). This approach is not a good thing for Anishinaabemowin as it uses a linear system that is the opposite to the healing, storytelling, and circular flow of the language and all things alive. It is only through learning Anishinaabemowin the way our ancestors spoke it that a clear line between Anishinaabe worldview and Zhaagaanash can be maintained. The key to understanding our spiritual, cyclical relationship with nature and the world we live in is therefore to be found in learning the Anishinaabe language untainted by Zhaaganash grammar rules. To read more about this topic, please see Reflections on a Ceremonial Bundle and on the Nature of Our Language. *** To find out what is meant by a backward sentence structure, please visit: Teachings from the Tree of Life: Why Bears Never Speak Backward but Some Indians Do.


 

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