New Words Keep Indiginous Languages Vital

One of the markers of a dying language is that new words in that language do not evolve. The Hawaiian Lexicon Committee and the New Words Council are two organizations that are working to ensure that this does not happen to their own languages— Hawaiian and Alutiiq—respectively.

The New Words Council exists to promote the Alutiiq Language of the Kodiak Archipelago in Alaska. It meets once a month under the guidance of knowledgeable elders to discuss the development of new words. The list they have developed so far includes everything from acupuncture to x-ray machine. Highlights of the list include UFO (llam’ek taimasqaq – “thing that came from the universe”), tofu (ciisaruaq – “kind of like cheese”), and breast pump (amam puumpaa’a – “breast’s pumper”). A complete list of words, as well as recordings and information on the Alutiiq language, can be downloaded here.

Far from Alaska, the Hawaiian Lexicon Committee was formed in 1987 to address needs relating to the creation of new Hawaiian words. Like the New Words Council, the Hawaiian Lexicon Committee offers suggestions for new words describing modern items and phenomena. Several years ago they released their own dictionary called Māmaka Kaiao as a companion to the authoritative Hawaiian Dictionary by Pukui and Elbert. The council hopes that community members and language immersion schools will be able to use their dictionary as a means of ensuring the continued evolution and usefulness of the language.

With language stewards like these two organizations, as well as the day-to-day efforts of Hawaiian and Alutiiq language speakers, both of these languages stand a good chance at remaining fresh and vital. And if an Alutiiq language speaker does happen to see a UFO she won’t need to use English to tell her friends and family about it.

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