Saturday, October 25, 2014

When elected office has a language requirement: Navajo

Vivid illustration of issues facing many languages today.

From the LA Times:
For Navajo Nation, candidate stirs questions about saving dying language

This week the tribe's high court struck candidate Christopher Deschene from the ballot because other contenders disputed that he was fluent in Navajo, a requirement for the office under tribal law. Deschene also refused to take a language competency test.

The subject may be politics, but the underlying issue is identity:
"Our sacred language defines us as individuals and as a nation," the justices wrote in their decision.
Tsosie says that though he still speaks Navajo, he won't teach his grandkids the complicated language, which lacks clear equivalents for some English words. For example, "computer" becomes "thinking metal."

"What's the use?" Tsosie said. "We've been discouraged from using our language all our lives. Why make this an issue now when we have a bright young lawyer who wants to return to lead our tribe?

Speaking the language is not going to do him any good, other than talking to the old folks. There are translators for that."
Comments from an interpreter RantWoman greatly esteems:
What is not clear to me is why "thinking metal" is supposedly not a "clear equivalent" for "computer."  As long as Navajo speakers understand that the object to which "thinking metal" refers is a computer, it's clear.

English is full of words and phrases that were made up to name things that had not existed previously, such as "automobile," "keyboard," and "hard drive."  Sometimes older words gained new meanings, such as "tank" to refer to a special type of vehicle.

There are many languages in the world where new words have been invented for new objects or acts, or old words appropriated to name the new things.


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