All the languages of the world are complex, expressive, descriptive, and creative in their own ways. It is wrong to think that one language is more powerful in any of these areas than any other language. It is true that languages differ in structure, but they are all perfectly adequate means of communicating about anything people wish to speak of. Some people have characterized Athabaskan languages as "simple," "primitive," or "descriptive," unable to express abstract ideas. Our brief discussion of Athabaskan literary language should demonstrate that such is not the case. In fact, Athabaskan languages are very complex both in terms of structure and in terms of the range of their vocabulary.
In this section we will discuss some of the ways in which Athabaskan languages differ from English. In some of these areas, such as word order, the languages are equally complex, but in others one is more complex than the other.
In an English sentence the subject precedes the verb, which in turn precedes the direct object; for example, "John (subject) sees (verb) Mary (direct object)." In Athabaskan languages, the verb is usually the last element in the sentence, with the object between subject and verb, as in this example from Upper Tanana: "John (subject) Mary (direct object) uneh'ih (verb)," 'John sees Mary.' This is the feature that Athabaskans refer to when they try to explain their language to outsiders by saying, "We say things backwards." Despite the marked difference between English and Athabaskan word order, Athabaskan speakers rarely have difficulty mastering normal English word order when they learn that language.
[Editorial note: because an Athabaskan font was not available at the time this work was posted to the web site and in order to maintain the integrity of the language as it is written, the following section has been reproduced as a graphic file and, therefore, lacks the flexibility of a text file.]
Cultural patterns of communication
We have discussed two areas everyone associates with language study—grammar and pronunciation. We now move to a third which may not occur so readily, the study of communicative behavior or sociolinguistics. To communicate across cultural boundaries, people do have to learn each other's vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. But even when this is accomplished, other factors may block communication, including different means of nonverbal communication and different cultural viewpoints about the proper use of language in various contexts.
When speakers of one language transfer grammatical patterns from their first language to their second, the result can be confusing. This confusion may extend beyond mere content. For example, one of the grammatical forms of the Athabaskan verb is called the optative. Typically translated with the auxiliary verb 'should,' it is something like the subjunctive in Latin and is used to express hopes and possibilities. It is also used in forming polite requests. There are three ways to express imperatives in Athabaskan, as these examples from Koyukon show:
Yah leedo 'You are staying in the house' or 'Stay in the house.'
Yah tagheedo' 'You will stay in the house' or 'Stay in the house.'
Yah ghoodo' 'You should stay in the house' or 'Please stay in the house.'
The first form, the imperfective, is used to ask someone to do something at the present time. The future is used to ask someone to do something in the future. The optative also requests future action but is more tentative and polite. When this pattern is directly transferred into English with the arbitrary translation 'should', it does not necessarily seem polite to a speaker of standard English, who probably interprets 'should' as a command unmitigated by politeness. Actually, the standard English form corresponding to the optative imperative above is 'Why don't you stay in the house?' To Athabaskans, however, direct questions are not a polite form. The indirection and tentativeness necessary for politeness are expressed by different constructions in the different languages.
We do not have much systematic information about nonverbal communication among Athabaskans. It is well known, however, that people from different cultures can misunderstand or offend each other by misinterpreting or ignoring nonverbal communicative behavior. For example, most Alaskan Native people can express an affirmative answer by raising the eyebrows. A White person who asked a question and did not notice this kind of answer might be offended, thinking that her question had been ignored. Again, many Athabaskans express wonder or affirmation by widening their eyes, an expressive pattern that may pass unnoticed by Whites.
A third area of misunderstanding is that of patterns of language use—when to talk, how much to say, and how to say it. On this topic, we recommend Ron and Suzanne Scollon's booklet Interethnic Communication and the videotape made to accompany it (available through the Alaska Native Language Center).
One very common problem in the classroom relates to what mainstream American culture calls "putting your best foot forward." Teachers expect students to express their good qualities and abilities by actively demonstrating them, perhaps feeling this is a way to build self-confidence. Many other White American institutions expect the same kind of display—interviews, business, and social gatherings.
Athabaskans often remark on how difficult it is for them to conform to such expectations by referring to their own good qualities in front of other people. They consider such behavior socially offensive, even when the accomplishments or talents to be displayed are really quite remarkable. It is considered far more admirable to be self-effacing and let others discover one's value for themselves. If a well-meaning teacher asks students to discuss their own achievements and talents, then, she may actually be asking students to display what their culture considers foolish and obnoxious behavior.
Another characteristic mainstream American society approves of is planning for the future, which is considered appropriate and even necessary. The more detailed one's plans, the better, and discussing such plans is a common topic of casual conversation. The last point is where the difference in cultures lies. It is wrong to say that Athabaskans do not plan for the future, for they certainly do. What they consider objectionable is explicitly describing their plans to others. It is considered presumptuous to imply that one can predict the future. When teachers ask Athabaskan students to discuss in detail their plans for education and careers, then, they are putting them in a very uncomfortable spot by demanding socially unacceptable behavior.
Another differing pattern in the two cultures has to do with what sociolinguists call "leave-taking." After a conversation, White people make a series of remarks that formally close the encounter, such as "Well, I should be going now" and "It's been good talking with you"; they then exchange words like "goodbye." The Athabaskan pattern is somewhat different. There is no obligation to make closing comments or say "goodbye"; in fact, most Athabaskan languages have no word for "goodbye." White people sometimes observe that Athabaskans break off conversations "without warning" and may feel offended by this, not realizing that no impoliteness was meant. Athabaskans, on the other hand, may be puzzled or annoyed by the lengthy and seemingly pointless closing routine of White leave-taking.
We should make one important point here. We are talking about misunderstandings and cultural stereotyping that can occur because of differing communicative patterns. We ourselves would be guilty of stereotyping Athabaskans if we claimed that they all behaved the same way or had the same opinions and values. Societies are made up of individuals, not of abstractions like patterns and structures. Booklets like this one and lnterethnic Communication can help by making us aware of possible patterns, concepts, and interpretations that we might not otherwise think of, but we must not think that every Athabaskan or every White person follows the general patterns outlined in these works.
Another thing we must point out is that because so much of White culture has come into rural Alaska, Native people are probably more tolerant in cross-cultural situations than White people are. They understand that differences exist and expect non-Native people to behave differently from themselves; they can often consciously adopt these behavioral patterns in appropriate contexts. It is not necessary that non-Native people change their own communicative patterns, but neither should they judge the people whose communities they enter based on their own cultural preconceptions.
The use of nonstandard English
Athabaskan and other Native people in Alaska generally speak dialects of English which are quite different from general American English, the kind of English taught in schools and used in national media. These dialects have been collectively called "Village English" or "Bush English." Throughout this presentation, we have tried to stress the need to be accepting and nonjudgmental toward different ways of learning, behaving, and communicating. The same principle holds true for Athabaskan-influenced English.
We have stressed the idea that all languages are functional means of communication. Local varieties of English are no exception. Historically, it is a combination of various influences from Eskimo and Athabaskan languages and the many dialects of English spoken by traders, missionaries, miners, and teachers. To date no one has determined how many local varieties of English exist in Alaska and what their systematic characteristics are, even though information of this nature is badly needed for educational planning. Therefore, all we will do here is to give a few common examples of differences between standard and local English and offer suggestions about teaching standard English in the classroom.
In the section on Athabaskan languages, we mentioned that Athabaskan does not distinguish pronouns for gender. This is almost certainly the reason gender tends to be confused. Another feature of Athabaskan we identified as contributing to the local variety of English was the tense system. Yet another, not mentioned earlier, is the fact that Athabaskan has no words corresponding to the articles "a" and "the"; articles are sometimes omitted or used in nonstandard ways in the local varieties of English.
Some features of the English spoken in Athabaskan villages may actually have spread from Eskimo areas. For example, many Athabaskans use the phrase "that kind" as an all-purpose noun where standard English might have "that thing." The Central Yupik Eskimo word imkuciq, "thing, whatchamacallit," literally meaning something close to "that kind," may be the source of this phrase.
Still other expressions are probably derived from the nonstandard varieties of English that Alaskan Natives heard from people speaking other regional American dialects or varieties of English influenced by European languages. For instance, the use of "bum" for "bad" cannot be explained by anything in a Native language, but it does occur in some other American English dialects.
Other features of the English spoken in Athabaskan communities have probably developed quite independently of both the Native languages and standard and nonstandard English. The use of "never" for "didn't" (as in "I never broke that") cannot be explained as anything but an independent development. One source of such developments was undoubtedly the early schools' demand that parents with limited command of English speak it to their children in the home. Approximate but nonstandard forms were pressed into use and over the years became general in the local English.