Kodiak Alutiiq Speakers Reinvent Their Language

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Just last year, the Alutiiq, a group of Native Americans who live on the coasts of Alaska, were in danger of losing their language, the Kodiak dialect of Alutiiq, completely. The dialect is down to about 50 living speakers.

For the past four years, however, the Alutiiq Museum has been working on a project to document and preserve the language. Called Living Words, the project involves talking with and recording the elders who can still speak Alutiiq.

But in addition to documenting the language as it exists today, the Alutiiq are also looking to the future by adding new words.  According to the Kodiak Daily Mirror, tribal elders have been holding “New Words Councils” to create words for modern phenomena like text messages and ATVs.

The list shows the words in English, the Alutiiq translation, and a “literal translation” that gives clues as to why that word was chosen.

For example, the Internet is translated as “Iwa’isuute,” which means “the searcher.” “Computer” is “umiartusqa,” a “thing that thinks.”

About half of the elders who speak Kodiak Alutiiq met recently for the Alutiiq Language Summit to discuss more new words and to talk about the future of the language now that the grant that supported the Living Words project has run out.

During the keynote address, project leader April Counceller vowed to continue the New Words Council, saying:

“Other groups that are interested in new words creation can now look to our example and see how a group can start out, just like ours, and create a successful and stable community within just a few years. We need to be proud of the Elders and the learners who make up this committee and find ways to continue the New Words Council, since there will never be a lack of needed new words for our language.”

Of course, creating new words for an old language is futile if nobody uses them. Fortunately, efforts are also underway to get the tribe’s youth to learn the language. The Kodiak Alutiiq Village of Afognak teaches the language to preschoolers, offers an after school immersion program and holds an annual youth camp. And Kodiak High School will be offering a class in Alutiiq this year at the request of the students.