Native American languages are unique. They came into being and evolved without the influence of writing. For scholars like Heidi Altman, a professor of linguistic sociology, that makes them fascinating.
“The thing I’m interested in is how people organize knowledge through language,” Altman said.
One of the most difficult aspects in the effort to preserve the Cherokee language and culture is how to convey the Cherokee worldview to a generation of speakers that live predominantly in an English-speaking world.
Altman said the nuances of the Cherokee language are often conveyed through the use of metaphor and context.
“When you have speakers together who are 50 and older, they’re able to talk in such a way that the language is metaphorical. It’s contextual, it’s funny, and it really encapsulates the Cherokee worldview,” Altman said. “It’s really different from how an English speaker thinks about how things work.”
Garfield Long Jr. has been the ECBI tribal linguist since 1997. One of the youngest native speakers of the Cherokee language at 42, Long struggles with how to preserve the meaning of the language as it is used by the elders.
Long believes there is no line separating language from thought or thought from experience. The oldest generation of Cherokee speakers grew up in a rural world, immersed not only in their language but also in natural surroundings.
“I think the experience outweighs the knowledge of the language,” Long said. “If you don’t go out in the woods and see the plants for yourself, you might know how to pronounce the word but you can’t go out there and find them.”
Long grew up in a Cherokee speaking household but he attended high school in Sylva. In some ways, he represents the boundary between two generations of Cherokee speakers.
“Growing up I never thought or dreamed that I would be in the position I’m in now, doing translation,” Long said. “Because in high school my world was mostly in English. It was only coming back after school that I began to realize how much I’d forgotten.”
Heavily influenced by his father and grandfather, Long considers himself a Cherokee thinker, but he concedes there is tension for anyone who lives in both worlds.
“For me I kind of think in Cherokee but again it just depends on the context of the conversation,” Long said.
In the Cherokee language the same noun will be pronounced differently depending on whether an object is a solid, a liquid, rigid or flexible. The pronunciation change involves subtle changes in tone and accent. Long said those subtle differences offer opportunities for humor, in some cases, and confusion in others.
“There was one word I was working with today and it meant ‘I will be there immediately’ but if I change one sound it meant ‘something to wipe with,’” Long said.
Long’s example may be funny but it also represents the knife’s edge facing Cherokee thought. Whether or not the younger generation can think in Cherokee may come down to how well they understand how to use their language to mediate their own experiences.
Gil Jackson, administrator at the Cherokee Language Academy, said the difference between thinking in English and thinking in Cherokee is most evident with higher order words, like love.
“The word love in our language is different. I could never describe it,” Jackson said. “It would take me half a book and I still couldn’t explain it.”
To that end, Jackson is encouraged by the way his young language immersion students express themselves.
“They run around now and tell each other ‘I love you’ in Cherokee,” Jackson said.