Each summer, a small group of fluent Lakota speakers gather to coin new words for modern concepts such as “smartphone”, or “red blood cells,” or “condoms.”
The group, usually numbering around 12 to 20, have held these meetings since 2013 at the Lakota Summer Institute at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota.
Their efforts may be the key to whether a new generation of Native Americans will take up the language of their ancestors.
Ben Black Bear, considered the eminent coiner of new Lakota words, said updating the language for modern times will help new, younger speakers learn the language. Lakota is considered a severely endangered language with only 2,000 speakers, most of whom are older and half of which live on one reservation, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Its sister dialect, Dakota, is spoken in Minnesota by just five first-language speakers.
“We’re teaching people the language, but for a lot of new speakers, in order for them to converse intelligently, they need a lot of new words that were never translated or never had a word for it,” said, Black Bear, who teaches the Lakota language at St. Francis Mission School in St. Francis, S.D. Speakers always used to coin new words by themselves, he said, but this has become a formal process in the last few years.
For decades, the federal government sent Native youth to English-language boarding schools, where speaking in Lakota was forbidden. Generations of speakers stopped using the language, and the generations that came after them never learned it. Words for space-age concepts were never officially coined, as fewer people spoke Lakota on a day-to-day basis.
When, at last, the Lakota came to create new words, or “neologisms,” their inventions were descriptive, often more precise and poetic than their English counterparts.
Computer becomes "device that knows or collects everything" in Lakota. Text messages are “words that fly.” A proposed definition for socialism is wóyuha iyówažakhiyapi -- or “they let them share in property.” Switzerland? “Zuyá Yápšni Makȟóčhe,” or, “they do not fight.”
Lakota isn’t the only native language updating itself for modern times. Language-internal word coining has been a widespread feature of Native American languages since first contact with Europeans, according to research by Ryan Denzer-Ryan, a graduate student at the University of Montana.
In Navajo, there’s a simple phrase for cellphone that means “metal that you talk into.” According to Audra Platero, a Navajo speaker and teacher, there’s also a more humorous, more descriptive term used for cellphone which translates as “you have this object and you’re constantly moving around with it.”
Among the Umatilla of eastern Washington, the computer is the “brain tool,” text messages are “flying writing,” a charging cable is an “umbilical cord,” and the television is “something that makes you sit there looking stupid,” according to Umatilla tribal linguist Thomas Morning Owl.
The fun part is these new terms can also reference tribal myths in wry ways. The Umatilla have a story of a black cloud that hovers over the wily coyote, foiling the coyote's schemes by always giving away his location. Thus, cellphone in Umatilla is taymusia, "the black cloud that is always following."
Compare that to the mundane, literal, almost medicinal image evoked by “cellphone.”
The hard part? Coming up with something short, yet descriptive. While coining new terms at the Lakota Summer Institute, Lakota speakers spend much time discussing what an English word means -- like really, really means.
They brainstorm ways of describing, say a car. Do they focus on what the cars do, like the Blackfoot, who say “áíksisstoomatokska’si”, which means “starts to run without apparent cause”? Or is it better to focus on how a vehicle sounds, like the Navajo, who use onomatopoeia in their word “chidí,” to evoke the “chid, chid, chid” chugging of a motor?
These conversations can take quite a while, according to Lakota speaker Peter Hill.
Hill is trying to bring Lakota back. In the immersion school where he teaches at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Hill says Lakota speakers often switch to English when talking about cars and phones. He says this gives youth the impression that speaking Lakota is only for older people, and only “to talk about old-timey things.”
“It’s almost an art to creating new vocabulary,” Hill said. “We want to have our cake and eat it too. Not lose a lot of what made the language distinctive, but also have it be something that fully exists as part of the modern world.”
Black Bear and Hill consider their efforts part of revitalizing the language for young Native youth. These efforts to create new words, either through slang or long committee arguments, are attempts to make sense of modern times, and to keep languages alive for the next generation.
The goal, Hill said, is for his students to understand “you can speak Lakota in 2018, and you can speak Lakota about anything you can speak in English about.”
They can even speak Lakota on their smartphone -- omás’apȟela for those in the know.