zaterdag 5 juni 2010

more on languages

There are hundreds of (Native) American languages spoken in the Americas. Most of them face extinction. Many of them however, are in a state of revalidation with, for example, the help of modern technology. Unlike television, the internet provides an excellent opportunity to create your own (education) programs. Besides these programs, communication methods like msn, facebook, twitter, and others, give people the chance to communicate in their own languages in a “modern” way.

Internet also gives the opportunity to tell others about certain issues. To give information. This post is about the (Indigenous) languages of the Americas. As said above, there are hundreds of them. Nobody knows exactly how many. There are however some areas that can be considered “language hotspots”, like the North American West Coast from southern Alaska all the way to the US-Mexican border. Another one is the western part of the Amazon basin, where Brazil borders Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela. Southern Mexico is a third one.

To make this a lot easier, six important languages are presented here. Two from North America (Canada/US), two from Central America (Mexico/Guatemala), & two from South America (Peru/Paraguay).

North America
The Cree peoples today live in Canada, from Labrador to Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Their language belongs to the Algic languages, one of the most widespread language families in North America (from coast to coast). It is Canada’s largest indigenous language and spoken by roughly 100.000 people. Because they live in such a large area, the language (and it’s native name) varies from place to place. Still, these differences are not large enough to consider them separate languages. Plains Cree (the most Western variant, primarily spoken in Alberta and Saskatchewan) is called Nêhiyawêwin by its own speakers.

Some Cree variants are written with the Cree syllabics, as shown here:

The most famous Cree word (although propbably from another Algic language) is the word Muus (ᒨᔅ in syllables) which is the name for the animal Europeans call Elk (from Swedish: Älg). Although it is the same animal, the Europeans in North America borrowed the native word and nowadays, in American English, it is known as Moose.

This is how it sounds (Plains Cree): an exercise in putting together a wee play dramatizing experiences many Cree have had with their language...

A dictionary

Ok, well... Let's go on! The next one is the Navajo (Navaho) language. There are almost 300.000 Navajo people and most of them live in the North American Southwest (on the Navajo Nation, by far the largest Indian Reservation in the United States with +/- 26.000 square miles/67.000 square kilometres. That is about the size of West Virginia and almost the size of The Netherlands & Belgium combined).

They call themselves Diné, and their language Diné bizaad. The Navajo language is a Na-Dene language (Southern Athabaskan group), like the Apache languages. Most Na-Dene languages can be found in western Canada. How the Navajo (and the Apache) people came in what today is the North American Southwest is not known although most scholars think of a migration from the north, around AD 1000.

The language itself is written with the Navajo alphabet, which is based on the roman alphabet with some modifications. This alphabet has some 85 letters and although this may sound a lot, it only means that every sound has its own letter. The system is completely phonetic, unlike, for example, the English spelling system. The English alphabet uses only 26 signs (letters) but the (standard) English language has at least 44 sounds. Besides that, there are almost 70 ways to spell different English sounds. That's the reason why so many people say they find English very difficult even if they can speak it quite well.
Two famous examples are:
Be, see, sea, Caesar, field, people, ceiling, key, machine
Food, rude, fruit, blue, to, two, shoe, group, through, flew

Here's an example of the Navajo alphabet (it's the first part of the wikipedia article on the Navajo people):

Naabeehó dineʼé bikéyah éí Diné bikéyah woolyé (Naabeehó bikéyah ałdó woolyé). Naabeehó; éí doodaʼ éí, Diné dinéʼiʼ éí bitsį́ʼ yishtłizhii dinéʼiʼ atʼéʼ. Naabeehó bikéyah éí Hoozdoh hahoodzo, Yootó hahoodzo, dóó Áshįįh biiʼtó hahoodzo biyiihíʼ siʼááh. 298,197 anéélą́ą́h dinéʼ Naabeehó yeeʼadah doozhíʼ (Binaaltsoos CIB daʼhólǫ́), díí éí 2000 biyiihah yééhdą́ą́ diné daaltá. 173,987 (58.34%) aneelʼááhgoʼ Diné Naabeehó bikéyah yikáágiʼ daʼbighan, adóó 131,166 aneelʼááhgoʼ éí Hoozdoh hahoodzojiʼ daʼbighan (17,512 aneelʼááhgoʼ éí Maricopa County, dóó Hoozdoh woolyédi kin daʼshijááʼígíí, aadi daʼbighan. Adóó aadi naanish yikéé nidaʼkai, naaná łá éí oltá yiikéé nidaʼkai).

And this is how it sounds like (lessons via youtube!):

Central America
The biggest language (more than 1,5 million speakers today of which +/- 200.000 in the US) in Central America is the language of the Aztecs, today mostly known as Nahuatl (pronounce as: Nawatl). It is also known as Aztec, Mexicah (The Mexican language), and, for a lot of its speakers: Macehualtlahtolli (pronounce as: mah-seh-wal-tlah-tol-lee), language of the common people/the farmers.

It is the main language of the Uto-Aztecan language family which spreads from Idaho in the US in the north to the country of El Salvador in the south. Nahuatl was not only the language of the Aztecs, it is also likely that it was the language of the mighty power before them (the Toltecs, around AD 1000), and the language of a lot of different (and/or) independent city-states (like Tlaxcallan) at the time the Spaniards arrived.

Nahuatl had its own script. A script that looks very much like picture writing (some people even called it a form of proto-writing because they only saw pictures), but has, in fact, a lot of phonetic signs (syllables) in it which, until this day, still aren't completely deciphered. An example:

Nahuatl was also the lingua franca in Mesoamerica (ancient Mexico, Guatemala, and neighboring regions) the language used by traders. Spanish accounts tell that it wasn't only in use in Mexico, but that it was even used by people as far south as Panama. It also seems likely, since the Mesoamericans traded with people in the North American southwest, that people knew how to speak (or at least could communicate in it) it in what today is the US.

Because it was that important, the Spaniards recognized its position (in 1570 Spanish king Philip II made it the official language of New Spain/Mexico). That's the reason why it didn't collapse with the fall of the Aztec empire. On the contrary. Under the nominal Spanish rule, it even grew. Nahuatl speaking peoples from down south Mexico moved and established colonies in what today is Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. They even, together with the Spaniards, crossed the Pacific Ocean and arrived in the Philippines where their Nahuatl language influenced Tagalog, the national language of that country (like the word tianggê, market, from the Nahuatl word tianquiztli). Although the script was replaced by the latin alphabet in the 16th century, the language florished and until the late 18th and early 19th century, most Mexicans (whether they were spanish or native) spoke Nahuatl, not Spanish. It was only in 1770 that the Spanish empire called for the elimination of the indigenous languages. From that time onwards the real hispanization of Mexico took place, something that became even more a reality with the independence of Creole governed Mexico (1821) when a real repression of the native languages started. Today, the Mexican state recognises (and officialy stimulates) Nahuatl and the other native languages within its borders.

This is how it sounds like

The second Central American (and Mexican) language here, is a Maya language. Most people think there's only one Maya language and only one Maya people. But this is not true. In Guatemala alone there are almost 25 different Maya peoples, all with their own language. The Mayan languages are often completely different from each other and speakers of the two biggest ones (the K'iche' language in Guatemala with approx. 1 million speakers, and the Yucatec language with approx. 800.000 speakers) cannot communicate with each other in their own language.

The language presented here is Yucatec Maya (Màaya T'aan), the language of the Yucatec peninsula.

The Maya script is the most famous of all Mesoamerican scripts. Just like others, it was a mixed system with syllabic signs and logograms. The oldest text so far was only recently found and dates to +/- 300BC. In the so called "Classic Period" (AD 250-900), it was extensively used by the mighty kings in the lowlands of the Maya area. Although there are many Maya languages, only one (or perhaps a few) were used for the script. Finally, only a few texts are left from the time just prior to the arrival Spaniards. Four books and a few inscripions in stone. Most books were burned by the Spaniards but the script was in use until at least 1697 when the last independent Maya city state (Tayasal, present day Guatemala) was conquered. Today, Maya people (children and adults alike) are learning to write again with their own script. Just like the Nahuatl language however, the Maya languages (most of them) never died out and weren't persecuted by the Spanish empire before 1770.

oldest Maya writing

Classic Period writing & one of the four surving books (the codex Dresden) of the period just before the Spanish arrival

South America
South America has the most native languages and also the biggest ones in terms of speakers. The absolute leader here (and in the entire hemisphere) is Quechua, the language of the Incan Empire. There are many variants of the Quechua language and scholars don't agree how to call them. Some speak of different languages, others of dialects or groupings. It seems quite save to say that there are three clusters. One, Southern Quechua (the language spoken in Bolivia, Argentina, Chile en southern Peru, which is also the language of the people in Cusco) is known as Runa Simi (People's Tongue) to its more than 5 million speakers. The other big one is Northern Quechua (mainly concentrated in Ecuador and the Amazonian lowlands of northern Peru), is known in Ecuador as Kichwa Shimi, and has about 3 million speakers. The third one is a lot smaller, and a lot more different than the other two. It is commonly known as Quechua I, Waywash or Quechua Central. The last name shows its geopgraphic position, in between northern and southern Quechua. There are probably less than half a million speakers.

And this is how it sounds

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