Tuesday, October 08, 2013


Yoda says,  "Interested I am."

As a former English teacher, I assure you that we teach grammar all wrong.  We think of it as a rote memorization problem so my high school classes would parrot that a noun “is a person-place-or-thing.”  It certainly is not.  A noun is a WORD that is a name.  Grammar is the name of the pattern structure of any language.  Every language has a pattern structure, which is a thinking and analysis skill that people learn about the time they learn to walk.  How hard can it be if a toddler can learn it?  The only thing hard about it is that it’s unconscious so one literally doesn’t know what one is doing.

Getting things that are unconscious up to where they can be thought about is one of life’s valuable skills, esp. in a situation where one is in a culture that’s changing.  Because the changing is often a mess and confusing.  One major change right now is going from conventional print to texting and images.  A lot of what adults learned in school -- under pressure -- is now being replaced and they are offended, at least partly because it’s hard to understand that after all that work, there’s nothing to do with it except patronize other people.  

Anyway, communication has become political, dividing traditionalists and polylingual people, old generations and new generations, people who use jargon like computer terminology, people who are literal (a thing is a thing) and people who love metaphors.  When I watch English movies that are not the “Great Classics,” I have to work to catch their slang, sometimes part-for-the-whole and sometimes rhyme.  It’s great fun if you can keep up, but sometimes I surrender.

Diagramming sentences is not like doing crossword puzzles.  It is more like taking a machine apart to see how it works.  Unless the diagram shows you how the sentence could be made clearer, it’s useless.  Not that it isn’t helpful to do a little bit of memorizing: my students (as I did long ago) memorized the helping verbs and the prepositions, two excellent clues to how the sentence engine operates.

At the recent workshop on Issksiniip some attention was paid to the importance of learning to speak Blackfeet.  One of the problems is that it’s not a written language -- Hebrew was revived from being entirely dead because it was written.  Not only that, it was a religious language, so preserved with respect.  Learning a spoken language means that you have to speak it, which means that it is the task of a community that speaks together.  One of the ways Blackfeet is preserved is as prayer spoken at community events, so even in Western movies (which often has the Indians speaking Blackfeet because they learn it on the set from the stunt riders who are Blackfeet) there is religious language.  The books about Code Talkers fascinates us all, but we forget that they had to speak metaphorically, since there is no Navajo word for sharks and so on.

When I came to Browning in the Sixties, Peter Red Horn and his mom would interface with white people by producing little vocabulary lists and also by praying for occasions.  It was brave of them, because the missionary and government practice of suppressing the culture by suppressing the language (which they had used earlier on immigrants who didn’t speak English) had been so harsh that most the of the People felt it was just too dangerous.  It was considered backwards, hopeless, and hiding in the past.  But then it began to turn around, partly because of G.R. McLaughlin and Terry Sherburne presenting it alongside French classes in the high school with the help of Marvin Weatherwax’s mother.  Partly because of the Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop, not because they taught the language, but because they valued freedom and culture of every kind.  But most of all it was the Piegan Institute and the organizing of Cuts Wood Immersion School that turned everything around.  Now many people know Blackfeet words at least.  Students, especially the youngest, have become fluent speakers again.

Few know the people who first converted oral language into written words and then analyzed them to figure out the grammar.  “Montana, 1911: a Professor and his Wife Among the Blackfeet” is the journal of a summer written by Wilhelmina Maria Uhlenbeck-Melchior.  Her husband, C. C. Uhlenbeck, would get the old-timers to tell him stories in Blackfeet that he struggled to understand and write down.  Then that evening, in the tent where they lived, he would try to recite them back in Blackfeet to whomever was interested.  It was a difficult life, recorded in a Dutch journal so not available to most Americans until Mary Eggermont-Molenar translated it.  She would not have known about it except for conversation about the Plains Indian Cultural Survival School in Calgary with Charles Fidler, a descendant of Peter Fidler, the first white man known to have seen Chief Mountain.  This book is an excellent introduction to the whole concept of anthropological study of language, which at that time was a salvage operation.

Donald Frantz (http://people.uleth.ca/~frantz/) is on the faculty at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.  His two books, “Blackfoot Dictionary” and “Blackfoot Grammar” show up in many used book sources, because people set out to learn the language, thinking it will be similar enough to English to just concentrate on the names of things, but then it turns out this isn’t true.  As Frantz himself says. “Grammar analysis concentrated on describing word formation, which is much more complicated than that of most languages. Most significant here is the fact that verbs are made up of parts that carry meanings usually carried by separate words in English. For example, "I will not be able to try to go to find you" would be expressed by one word in Blackfoot (kimátaakohkottsssáakotoohkoonoohpa). And of course the inflectional system of verbs and nouns required extensive periods of analysis.”  That means little bits were added to the main “stem words” to modify their meaning.

Frantz is not so well-known in the States, though I myself use his dictionaries all the time.  In part he scares secular people off because he learned the language in order to translate the Bible.  They are afraid of proselytizing even in a different language.  I would love to have a conversation with him about how he translated the spiritual concepts of the Blackfeet into the Euro-Xian concepts.  Of course, the indigenous People of the Blackfoot Nation in Canada have been a precious reservoir of ceremony and language.

Iksista’pssi, according to Frantz, means “a spirit that wanders”; Iksiiyisi means “contact with the earth while moving in a parabolic path”, maybe swinging down like a hawk to catch a ground squirrel.  Iksaii’taki means to be challenged by a task that must be finished.  Issk can mean “a pail” or it can mean “long ago.”  What I love about languages is that they are so suggestive, a poetry, a system of images.  I love it when they are fluid, moving as though they were traveling across a landscape -- which, of course, they are.  

I don’t care about correctness.  I do care about clarity, which is the real purpose of grammar, and about saying things well, with style, but that doesn’t mean being stuffy.  It just means being thoughtful about what’s really being said.  Iksaii’taki.

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