by Ashley Butner
Within the span of the next fourteen days, one language will die. If this rate continues, then by the year 2100, nearly half of the world’s seven thousand languages will disappear (Rymer 60).
With every language forgotten our culture sphere shrinks. And in an increasingly homogenized world, what we risk losing is far greater than words. We relinquish songs, delineations of seasons, myths, terms of endearment, names for animals (and on and on) into a black hole of terminal silence. What hangs in the balance are priceless facets of living heritage that not only endow native speakers to name their own part in existence, but enrich the global community as well. For with each language removed from our comprehensive lexicon, we forfeit a unique and essential square in the quilt of human experience. When mother tongues become homeless we sacrifice diverse worldviews.
Ahtna, a group of people surrounded by the Chugach, St. Elias, and Wrangell Mountains, amidst the valleys of the Copper River in southeast Alaska, is one such perspective. The place Ahtna calls home—much like the language itself—is remote and enduringly beautiful. As one of less than twenty remaining speakers of this Athabaskan Indian language, Dr. John Smelcer’s bilingual book, Beautiful Words / Kasuundze’ Kenaege’: The Complete Ahtna Poems, is a linguistic and creative landmark. To understand why, we must first examine Ahtna’s (relatively brief) history as a written language. In the poet’s own words:
“The first Ahtna word ever written down was ‘naa-taakie,’ most certainly nadaexi, the Ahtna word for snow. That was in 1787. A few others were written down by Russian explorers over the next few years and decades. But, largely, our language remained hidden from the Western world. Little by little, word by word, over two hundred years, our language was partially documented by Russian, French, German, and American explorers, miners, missionaries, and, eventually, by trained linguists. Serious work didn’t really begin until the 1970s.”
As the past so often begs for serious and immediate responsibility, “The Poet / C’etsesen” (4–5) brings us up to speed with Smelcer’s present role.
I am beginning to write in our language,
but it is difficult.
Only elders speak our words,
and they are forgetting.
There are not many words anyhow.
Dahwdezeldiin’ koht’aene kenaege’
Yaane’ koht’aene yaen’,
While most of Ahtna is documented now—including James Kari’s impressive list of place names—Smelcer comments on the comparative scarcity of his language to other major languages such as English, Spanish, or Chinese:
“When a high school or college student buys a popular English dictionary, the cover will often boast, ‘Includes over 30,000 words!’ Indeed, the English language contains many times that number. In contrast, the entire Ahtna lexicon contains a fraction of the entries in one of those cheap paperback versions; I’d go so far as to say less than ten percent, which makes translating from Ahtna into English very difficult. For me, I have to think of a poem in Ahtna first, because the lexicon is so restrictive. Imagine colors, for instance; Ahtna really only counts a handful of basic and primary colors. Even then, brown and green are confused, almost as if Ahtna didn’t really see much of a difference between the two. Words fundamental to any poet worth their salt, such as love, does not exist in Ahtna, yet, quite understandably, we have numerous words for the various conditions of snowfall or, say, for the names of the parts of a snowshoe or a dogsled.”
While the lexicon is sparse in many areas, the ones in which it is abundant deserve to be remembered, to be written and passed down. Until these bits of culture are lastingly sewn into the fabric of our consciousness, then generations lose access to their own unique context and position in the world. For it is these special points of emphasis that customize cultural and geographic experience, and in doing so, add color and distinct patterns to our greater quilt. As Ahtna is rooted to its own landscape, the poems that emerge from it are tinged both with mourning and joy “A salmon weeps in a fish trap / Luk’ae tsagh yii tiz’aani (19); The earth laughs in flowers / Nen’ dlok’ tah c’et’aan ‘unetniigi (31).”
In this collection, Smelcer has pieced together a map of Ahtna culture and history that is a signpost to the present as well as the past. By interspersing poems about current problems such as “A Polar Bear Tries to Adapt (to Global Warming) / Tsaane’ Ggay Dzes Cu’ts’endze’” (22) and “Soda Pop Song / Tuu Nelnesi C’eliis” (67) between works about trickster and creator Raven, Owl, Fox, and Mouse, Smelcer emphasizes that cultural pride and rejuvenation are the first step toward progress. What is lost in translation is everything.
“Aside from my own writing, no other literature has ever been produced in the Ahtna language,” Smelcer said. “There are no models. No teachers. So, when asked to provide specific passages that were difficult to translate, my reply is that every line of bilingual poetry I write is difficult. And sometimes, I simply discard a poem after realizing it simply can’t be translated effectively.”
In this way, the poem, “The Indian Prophet / Uni’di C’ilaenen” (3) expresses the grave and undeniably lonely position of the speaker of an endangered language, “Almost no one remembers. / I am sick and lonely / and weak from crying. / K’aagu kenaege’ niic kole. / Ts’iye ‘est’aat ‘el sneyaa / ‘el stiye’ kole tsagh.” But, as if in acknowledgment of his own contribution, “The Poet / C’etsesen” (4–5) reminds us that there is hope, too, “I do not speak like an Ahtna elder, / but I hear the voice of a spirit, / hear it at a distance / speaking quietly to me. / Sii ‘e koht’aene k’e kenaes, / Sii ndahwdel’en, / dandiil‘en / s’dayn’tnel’en.”
When a language disappears from our collective lexicon, so do the idiosyncrasies of our world. The opportunity for linguistic variety both authenticates and elevates our ability to render our own universe. And without this opportunity we will find that at times, silence can be deafeningly louder than words.
John Smelcer reading “Heart”:
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NOTE: Because of font limitations, some special characters may not display properly in this work.
Smelcer, John. Beautiful Words / Kasuundze’ Kenaege’: The Complete Ahtna Poems. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2011. Print.
Rymer, Russ. “Vanishing Voices.” National Geographic July 2012: 60-93. Print.