The University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) plans to offer free language classes for Tlingit (or Lingít), Haida, and Tsimshian this fall.
The non-credit classes are intended to help revitalize these Alaska native languages, which are endangered due to assimilation programs. Some experts warn that if nothing changes, Alaska’s remaining indigenous languages will all be extinct by 2100.
According to the Alaska Native Language Center, only 15 people speak Haida, for example, and most are elders.
With these free classes, UAS is hoping to increase those numbers.
“We kept saying, Indigenous people did not choose to be in this situation. Our language was banished, it was prohibited, it was made illegal,” he said. “We were tortured and abused and all kinds of things to get us to stop speaking. So why should we have to pay to learn our own language?” said Alaska Native Languages professor X’unei Lance Twitchell in a KTOO interview.
Fascinating Facts About Alaska Native Languages
Want to learn more about these languages? Read on for some fascinating facts.
#1. Alaska is home to more than 20 native languages.
These 20 languages are grouped into 4 different language families. Eskimo-Aleut and Athabascan-Eyak-Tlingit are the two main language families. Haida and Tsimshian are not related to either language family and, in fact, Haida is considered a “language isolate” because it is not related to any other language in the world.
#2. The Tlingit language was historically spoken in coastal Southeastern Alaska.
Tlingit, one of the languages that will be offered by UAS, is a tone language. Unlike in English, Tlingit grammar is not structured around time. The Tlingit people traditionally lived in Southern Alaska “from Yakutat Bay to Cape Fox.” They relied on fishing, with salmon being a primary source of food.
Today, estimates suggest that there are around 500 speakers of the Tlingit language.
#3. Haida can be written with at least two different writing systems.
The Haida people traditionally lived in Haida Gwaii, which is also called Queen Charlotte Island. This unique language is now only spoken by about a dozen elders.
Multiple writing systems have been developed for Haida. Linguist John Enrico created a written language based on the Roman alphabet. Another system, created by the Alaska Native Language Center, follows Tlingit patterns.
#4. There are two Tsimshian dialects.
Tsimshian is the native language of the Tsimshian people. Estimates suggest that only about 70 people still speak this language. The Tsimshian people moved to the Metlakatla Indian Community on Annette Island in 1887. Located 20 miles south of Ketchikan, this is the only Indian Reserve in Alaska.
The Tsimshian language consists of two dialects – coastal and southern. Most Alaskan speakers use the coastal dialect.
#5. As of 2014, Alaska Native languages are official state languages.
In 1998, Alaska made English the state’s official language. But in 2014, a new bill was passed that also added the 20 Alaska native languages as official languages.
While this bill does not require the state to provide official documents or conduct meetings in any language besides English, many people felt that this bill was an important step toward preserving these native languages.
Practice Speaking Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian
If you’re feeling inspired by the indigenous language classes in Alaska, why not try learning a few phrases in these Alaska native languages. The Alaska Native Language site is a helpful resource with audio guides to help you practice your pronunciations.
Tlingit – English:
Wáa sá si yatee? – How are you?
Gunalchéesh. – Thank you.
Gunalchéesh haat yigoodí. – Thank you for coming.
Haida – English:
Sán uu dáng g̲íidang? – How are you?
Áang. – Yes.
Ge’é. – No.
Tsimshian – English:
Ndeeya wila waan? – How are you?
Ama g̲unłaak. – Good morning.
Ama huup’l. – Good evening.
For many years Alaskan students were punished for speaking their native languages, which significantly contributed to the loss of these languages. Efforts like the free classes offered at the University of Alaska Southeast can hopefully help revitalize these endangered languages. Language is crucial for culture, tradition, history, and so many other aspects of life and it is important that we continue to work to preserve linguistic diversity.
Want to learn about other fascinating languages? Check out the ALTA Beyond Words Blog for more.
Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator.
You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.