Languages

As a linguist, I pride myself in being multilingual. When you learn to speak a language fluently, you begin to develop native-speaker intuitions, i.e. the ability to see the language through the native speaker’s eyes (Everett 2001). Also, as a fieldworker my ability to transcribe texts and work with speakers has improved dramatically, in line with my understanding and speaking ability. In the communities I work in, one often has little choice but to work monolingually, since many elders have limited fluency in English.

Below are the languages I have experience with. In general, my research in recent years has been almost entirely on Dene / Athabaskan languages. Thus I haven’t written a paper on Italian, for example, in over 10 years. But I still value my background with non-Dene languages, it provides a useful perspective, and I hope to come back to these other languages some day.

Dene / Athabaskan Languages.

Most of my fieldwork in recent years has been with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, who live in and around the villages of Dettah and Ndılǫ, and the city of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.  The elders in the community are mostly bilingual, speaking both Weledeh (Dogrib) and Chipewyan (really Tetsǫ́t'ıné or Yellowknife).  The names of these languages require some comment.  Weledeh (or, more properly, Wıı̀lıı̀deh Yatıı̀) is mutually intelligible with Dogrib or Tłı̨chǫ Yatıı̀.  However, the majority of my speakers disprefer referrint to their language as "Tłı̨chǫ," as this term is associated with the Tłı̨chǫ Government (Treaty 11), and instead prefer Weledeh, or Wıı̀lıı̀deh Yatıı̀.  The Weledeh dialect itself has borrowed a number of phonological and grammatical features from Chipewyan and is sometimes described as a "mixed" language.  More properly, from a linguistic point of view, Weledeh could be characterized as a Tłı̨chǫ dialect with a Chipewyan substrate, as it was historically the result of the Tłı̨chǫ language being acquired by people whose first language was Chipewyan.  Several elders I have worked with, who presently use only Weledeh on a daily basis, report that as children they did not speak Tłı̨chǫ and could not understand Tłı̨chǫ speakers--that is, they spoke only Chipewyan as their first language.

The terms "Chipewyan" or "Dëne Sųłıné," in this context, are actually mis-nomers for Tetsǫ́t'ıné Yatıé--the Yellowknife language.  This language is still spoken by elders in Dettah, Ndılǫ, Łútsëlk'é, and some families in Fort Resolution, despite previous claims that this language was "extinct".  Historically, the Yellowknife language (that is, the language of Akaitcho and his people) was the most highly divergent dialect of Dëne Sųłıné, such that it might be characterized as intermediate between Dëne Sųłıné and North Slavey (see here).  Tetsǫ́t'ıné is also diglossic, with both acrolectal and colloquial registers:  the colloquial register is generally not mutually intelligible with colloquial varieties of Dëne Sųłıné spoken in Alberta and Saskatchewan, so there is some basis for regarding Tetsǫ́t'ıné as a distinct language from Dëne Sųłıné--or at least for referring to it by a different name.

In general, throughout the 20th century there was a gradual shift from Tetsǫ́t'ıné to Weledeh, and then from Weledeh to English.  However, Goyatıkǫ̀ is working to revitalize both traditional Yellowknives Dene languages.

Indo-European Classical Languages.

As an undergraduate I was a Latin major and studied Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. I took 2 years of Greek and used to be able to read the New Testament without a dictionary. In Latin and Sanskrit I was actually conversationally fluent, having taken 5 years of each, and since I spent 2 summers in Rome as part of Reginald Foster’s program Aestiva Romae Latinitas, and 3 weeks in Mattur, a Sanskrit-speaking village in Karnataka, India. I really enjoy speaking morphologically complex languages, somehow I feel it has a different effect on the brain.

Romance Languages.

As a boy, I actually learned Italian before I learned English (from spending time with my mother and grandmother), and started learning French in kindergarten, at age 4. I also majored in French and Italian (FrIt) as an undergrad, so I still speak both fluently. I also speak Fanese, a dialect of Romagnolo, a Gallo-Italic language from northern Italy, which is sort of like 2/3 Italian and 1/3 French with Irish Gaelic intonation (very loosely speaking). You can hear a sample of it here (a more northern dialect than mine, can’t pin it down exactly).

Other Languages.

I worked on Tamil for a year in a field methods class at the University of Minnesota, in 2003, and took German for several years as well, mostly to be able to read old scholarly articles. I hope to take up Tamil again in the future, if I can find good speakers to work with in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. I also enjoy frequenting Dosa King, a local South Indian restaurant.

References.

Everett, Daniel. 2001. Monolingual field research. In Paul Newman & Martha Ratliff (eds.) Linguistic Fieldwork. Cambridge University Press.

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