Navajo language programs deserve more support, quickly

Flag of Navajo Nation

Flag of Navajo Nation

Voice of America Radio: “Young Navajos Study to Save Their Language”

More than 100 years ago, the U.S. government began sending Native American children to boarding schools. All the instruction was in English. The native cultures and languages of the children were discouraged.

In the last 20 to 30 years, tribal governments have started to promote the teaching of Native American languages in schools. The U.S. Department of Education now also supports Native American language programs.
The 2010 United States Census showed that about 170,000 Navajos speak Navajo at home. It is one of the most robust Native American languages today.

But there is a growing worry that the Navajo language could disappear. Seventy years ago, nearly everyone on the Navajo reservation spoke Navajo as their first language. But today, few young Navajos can speak the language of their grandparents.

A study in 1998 found that only 30 percent of Navajos entering school spoke Navajo as their mother tongue. Just 30 years earlier, that was true of 90 percent of first-grade Navajo students.

Boosting these programs to save the language will probably require serious, long-term, and immediate financial commitments and other policy dedication. The Nation’s government is not flush with cash at the moment, and while that may change in the longer-term if fossil fuel energy development on Navajo lands goes forward, it would make the most sense (morally and practically) if the United States government really ramped up its contributions to sustaining Navajo language programs right now.

Between the U.S. government’s past actions against the Navajo people (and their language) and the U.S. government’s crucial reliance on Navajo language intelligence codes during World War II, this is owed.

Without words for concepts, do they still exist?

burma-mapI’m always fascinated by the way language and available terminology shapes our worldview — literally causing us to view the world fundamentally differently from our fellow people if they grew up with a very different language. In international politics, these differences crop up from time to time in the news.

In recent years, after many decades of broad cultural-political integration, the differences and resulting gaps in mutual understanding have generally become smaller, even borderline mere curiosities.

Examples: German using the same word for debt and guilt. Or, the Greek translation for the Wikipedia page for “Roman Republic” is just “Roman Democracy” because Greek lacks a word for Republic — and Greek government documents can’t use the word “republic” except when translated. Or, ISIS terrorists bitterly disputing the translations of its own various and oft-changed names, and the global media struggling to choose one.

But then there are the truly isolated holdouts, the places that have sealed themselves off from the outside world and kept their language from cross-pollinating.

According to a great new article in the New York Times, the dictatorship of Myanmar — still struggling under new management with a transition into democracy — has been one such place. The consequences of that linguistic-political isolation are now catching up as “Those Who Would Remake Myanmar Find That Words Fail Them”.

The Burmese language doesn’t yet have a native word for democracy, only the borrowed English word with an accented pronunciation. However, it turns out the problem is much larger than one missing word: The country lacks Burmese words for most of the new political and policy concepts of the past four decades (like “computer privacy”)…or even many old concepts like “institution” or “federalism.” The Myanmar military regime attempted to ban even English words for political ideas — and then corrupted the understood meaning of any that remained, such as “rule of law.” An estimated 10-50% of the meaning of any given conversation between Western diplomats and Myanmarese leadership is hopelessly lost in translation.

And it may not just be a failure to understand the literal words. It’s hard to adopt and promote the ideas in a substantive way when the conceptual meaning behind them doesn’t carry over into the worldview-informing culture and language.

This, to my mind, should then pose a much bigger question, affecting many more countries in Asia as well as Africa — and one vastly beyond my pay grade:

Has the West been too quick to fault democratic shortcomings and state failures in post-colonial developing nations as a whole, if we accept that these Western Enlightenment-derived concepts from philosophers and leaders speaking inter-entangled European languages might have to some degree been imposed onto existing cultures with poorly compatible linguistic-cultural frameworks?

Obviously there would still be the usual factors sharing the blame. But it might play a role.

The Burmese political translation challenges now playing out in public should also, once again, raise legitimate questions about the very premise of “universal” values.

The language of austerity

What happens to the politics of word choice when two dozen languages are spoken in a union?

Below are excerpts from “How do you say ‘austerity’ in German? You don’t” in France24:

In Germany, the crisis rocking the country’s EU partners has produced the ugly term “austerität”, but few use it, least of all Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has made no secret of her distaste for the word, prefering to speak of “sparpolitik” – which translates as “the politics of saving money”, or of spending it “sparingly” – and “sparsamkeit” (frugality). Both terms have positive meanings and refer to very reasonable policies. Conversely, anyone opposing “sparpolitik”, like Greece’s government, is necessarily unreasonable.
“Schuld”, the German word for debt, also means “guilt”. It has a moral quality that doesn’t translate into other European languages. For Keynesian economists, spending one’s way out of crisis, at the risk of temporarily increasing the debt load, is eminently sensible – particularly at a time of low interest rates, as is presently the case in Europe. But to many Germans it is sinful.

ISIS or ISIL: Lost in chronological, cultural translation

Here on AFD’s blog and on our show, I’ve consistently used “ISIS” (not spelled out often at all) as the name of the group seizing control of parts of Syria and Iraq right now. Part of that is for convenience (or, as Nate said, to mockingly associate them with the spy organization on the FX animated series “Archer”) and part of that is not quite knowing how to culturally translate the meaning of the group’s name.

As a new article in the New York Times explains, that’s proven a problem for the whole English-speaking world, from governments to the media. The organization uses an old-school Arabic geographic phrase in their name which doesn’t precisely translate at a 1:1 word ratio into existing English terms for the region’s geography and history.

الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, or al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham. The difficulty comes from the last word.

Al-Sham is the classical Arabic term for Damascus and its hinterlands, and over time, it came to denote the area between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, south of the Taurus Mountains and north of the Arabian desert. Similarly, in Egypt, “Masr” may refer either to Cairo or to the whole country. Used in that sense, al-Sham takes in not just Syria but also Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and even a part of southeastern Turkey.

That is fairly similar in extent to what Western geographers call the Levant, a once-common term that now has something of an antique whiff about it, like “the Orient.” Because of the term’s French colonial associations, many Arab nationalists and Islamist radicals disdain it, and it is unlikely that the militant group would choose “Levant” to render its name.

The fighters do not like “Syria” either, though. Syria is what the Greeks named the region in ancient times, possibly after the Assyrian people who once lived there, though that derivation is disputed. And at times in the past, the term “Syrian” was used to mean specifically a Christian Syrian, while Muslims or Jews living there would be called Shami. Today, when Arabs speak of Syria, they usually mean only the modern state, which the insurgent group is fighting to obliterate.

Compounding the problem is that the rebel faction appears to frequently use archaic Arabic phrases/words that are not common in modern Arabic, in place of their modern synonyms. This would perhaps be equivalent to insisting on using only Anglo-Saxon rooted words in place of every Franco-Norman rooted word in the English language.

Or I guess a bit like the pedants who insist on not using any of the newfangled American English words (and new usages) that have come into vogue since the rise of computers… But I digress. Or as George Orwell might edit me: I am getting off track.

If you disagree with our use of “ISIS,” contact us. It might impact our choice.
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