I lost my Tenure-Track Job Native Studies because I am a White Male

I have been debating whether or not to talk about this for quite awhile, and I decided that it would be better if I did. I’ve been dreading doing this for months, actually. Even facing it now, when it’s all over, it’s very hard to figure out what to say or how to say it. But that’s part of the legacy of mobbing and racism, I think. I should know – I’ve worked many years with aboriginal people who have lived through it. It’s just different to be the one coping with it instead of trying to be a useful advocate for someone else.

Probably the main reason for deciding to talk is that, when I talk to other non-aboriginal academics who work with aboriginal languages, the overwhelming amount of fear really bothers me. Everybody is so scared – and I understand why, and I was scared, too. But I’m out the other end, now, and there’s really nothing more that can be done to me (shorting of shooting me in the street, which I suppose is still in the cards somewhere?). So, maybe, me talking about it will give a lot of other people a voice.

A year ago, I had a tenure-track job, I was working hard teaching classes, and I was optimistic about what I could do in the future. Now, I am unemployed, my research has ground to a halt, I am dealing with a great deal of PTSD-like symptoms, and my academic career is over. So what happened to me?

Well, “Native Studies” happened to me. And it has happened to a lot of other people, too.

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Posted in academia, colonialism, cultural meaning, education, history, philosophy, racism

10 Things about English that might be helpful for learning a second language

So, what is English like, relevant to Cree?

Here are some important features of English that you’ll need to take stock of if you want to understand what you’re facing in learning Cree (or, really, a lot of other languages):

1. English does not build very complex words.

Most of the words in English are made up of one “piece” (one “morpheme”). Words like “horse” and “kick” and “want” are all single “blocks” of English. English has a few “pieces” in it; things like -s (dogs) and -ed (kicked), but they are very, very limited. That’s not true for all languages.

2. English likes to tell you who is doing what to who by the order of the words.

In “John kicked the ball,” we know it’s John doing the kicking because the word is in front of the verb. Some other languages might put “John” after the verb (like Turkish or Japanese). Some languages might say “screw it” and skip the whole “word order” problem here entirely (e.g. Greek or Polish).

3. English doesn’t care about the difference between dependent and independent clauses terrible much.

You typically just add a word like “because” or “then” or “that” to the normal sentences. “John kicked the ball” vs. “because John kicked the ball.” So, in English, you can use basically the same sentence for “John kicked the ball” and “I know that John kicked the ball.” This is not true for all languages – in fact it’s not true for quite a few. Take German, for example. Good luck there, if you think you don’t need to know what a “dependent clause” is. Ha ha ha! The entire Symposium, written by Plato, is written in dependent clauses (because it’s a quotation).

4. English has very complicated syllables.

Huge, in fact. Words like ‘strength’ are one syllable, but look at all those consonants in there! Wow! English doesn’t have the world’s most complicated syllable structure, but compared to the world’s languages, English is much, much more complex than average.

5. English has a lot of vowels, and a lot of sounds in general (compared to an average language).

English has a lot more than the average language does – particularly in the vowel department. I know you think English has a, e, i, o, and u for vowels, but actually there are more like 15. Listen to any second-language speaker of English and you’ll hear them struggle with the vowels. Most languages won’t have that many vowels.

6. English loves its definite articles ‘the’ and ‘a.’

These are used a lot, and they have complex and powerful meanings that we linguists have still not sorted out very well. Don’t expect these words to show up in whatever other language you want to learn, because they won’t. I don’t know of another language that uses words like ‘the’ and ‘a’ with the same meanings and patterns that English does. You will have to expect to unlearn them, wither it’s for French or German or Malaysian or Huarani. The meanings that ‘the’ and ‘a’ convey in English will be there in these languages, but they could be done in all kinds of other ways. For example, some of what ‘the’ does in English is done in Czech by putting the noun in front of the verb. In some African languages, it’s nasalization. You don’t know until you come to the new language.

7. English likes to use tone of voice to emphasize and change meanings in complex ways.

You don’t hear it as a native speaker (and even many linguists have a hard time noticing it), but it is definitely there in force. “JOHN kicked the ball, vs. John KICKED the ball, vs. John kicked THE BALL. vs. JOHN kicked the ball?” etc. etc.) We also use tone to indicate a question. You might think that’s normal for language, but it isn’t. Most languages use some kind of particle to do this (e.g. Japanese ka).

8. English uses special, independent words called “pronouns” and it uses them A LOT.

I, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, you, him, her, it, us, them. They are busy, busy, busy in English. Not all languages have these little words. And even if a language does, it may not use them how English does (e.g. Mandarin has them, but prefers not to use them in a number of context where English would). Be on your guard!

9. English uses a lot of unrelated words instead of making sets related of words.

We have “snow” and we have “slush” and we have “flakes” and we have “flurries” and so on. These words are not related in any straightforward way. This is not how all languages work. For example, you could imagine “snow” and “slush” in some other language being made from the same base word (e.g. “snow”) and then adding a suffix that means “watery.” And then make “flakes” by adding a suffix that means “little pieces” and so on.

The way English does it seems fine enough to English speakers, but it tends to make them think that part of the job of learning a foreign language is vocabulary. These kinds of learners then complain loudly when you start giving them systems and rules instead of vocabulary lists. Actually, the expectation that you need to learn a lot of vocabulary is not necessarily true. If the language you’re trying to learn is one of the “builder” kinds of languages, you’ll actually be better served learning the system it uses, instead of memorizing needlessly. It’s needless because you’ll be memorizing the same things over and over again, without learning the system that makes it simple to build new words.

10. English doesn’t have very many kinds of nouns

In English, we don’t have a great deal of noun types. We have “count” and “mass” nouns (“dog” vs. “water”) and that’s about it, from a grammatical point of view. You can say “I saw three dogs.” but not “I saw three waters.” This is one of the only grammatical differences you have to worry about in the noun system of English. That’s almost never true for other languages. In European languages, you have “gender” (la vs. el in Spanish, for example). In Some African languages (like Dinka), you have as many as 200 classes of nouns. In other languages, you only worry about these classes when you count them (e.g. Mandarin), while in some languages, you have to indicate which “class” a noun is every time you use it, and on every verb you use it with (e.g. isiZulu).

When you’re trying to learn a foreign language, a good way to approach these issues is to think about the abstract concepts laying underneath the surface. All languages care about the meaning that underlies English tone of voice. If you begin get what those underlying meanings ARE, you will begin to look for them in the new language, using them as guideposts for your learning.

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How hard is it to learn Cree (or Ojibwe)?

Short answer: Hard. For you, oh English speaker, it’s hard. If that’s all you wanted to hear, you can move on to a different post. If you’d like to think more about “how hard” or “what hard means,” then read on for the long answer!

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An Aside on Reductionism

A lot of what I just posted about the conceptual barriers students bring to language learning boils down to Reductionism. So, I thought I’d write a short post (i.e. a rant) about what Reductionism is and why I don’t like it. I’m sure this will be the absolute most popular post on this blog. I can see people choosing: “Should I look at the post on Cree Swearing or the post on Reductionism?” “Choices, Choices.” I should append a cat video to this post – it’s the only hope of anybody bothering to read it.

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Language and “Dashboard Knowledge” (Or: “Stop thinking language is so simple, or you’ll never learn Cree!”)

When you set out on some new endeavor, some new challenge, you should always try to take rational stock of how “hard” you can reasonably expect it to be. In my years of experience teaching people about Algonquian languages, or even trying to teach them to speak one, I have repeatedly seen that unrealistic expectations are one of the biggest stumbling blocks for students.

I think, in general, unrealistic ideas about human language’s complexity are the greatest roadblock to understanding. Coming to this blog, or to any work on language for the first time, you no doubt think that language is just a bunch of noises people make, and that it’s as simple to analyze as it is for you to speak it. That is, you have a classic version of “dashboard knowledge” (as Owen Barfield nicely put it many years ago). You mistake the easiness of operating a car for the mechanical simplicity of a car. When you think language is simple (and that people like me make it oh-so complicated), you are making the same mistake you would when you try to gauge the difficulty of  tearing down an engine by the difficulty of operating the blinkers. They’re not related; the blinkers were designed just for you to use. The rear seal on the crankshaft was not (as anyone who’s tried to take one out can readily tell you. *#$@$#! I swear if that thing starts leaking, I’m going to run the car into the river!).

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lacsteannemetis writes: 
“Is Wabamun a Cree word? Do you know what it means?”

Yes it is Cree. In the Standard Roman Orthography, it is spelled wâpamon with a p and a ‘hat’ over the a. It’s pronounced “wah-puh-mon”

The word means “mirror” in modern Cree. It’s from the root wâp- meaning ‘bright’ or ‘white.’ The pieces of the word (it’s morphemes) are:

wâp- am- -o- -n
bright- -by.eye- -middle- -inanimate
‘a thing that lets itself flash brightly in one’s eyes”

wâpamon is a common name for lakes, because small lakes often look still and bright, like a mirror. It’s possible that it referred to the lakes before it referred to the object “mirror,” since the mirror was introduced relatively recently to Cree country.

The spelling with the ‘b’ could indicate a Saulteaux version (an Ojibwe language) instead of Cree, however, in many Northern varieties of Plains Cree (and especially in Métis Plains Cree), ‘p’ comes out sounding like a ‘b’ quite often. Whenever trying to understand an aboriginal word, it’s important to remember that the word existed before writing, and that the writing was mostly done (in the early days) by Europeans who did not speak the language well. They often “sounded it out” as best they could, and so you get all kinds of mushed up spellings. Learning to figure out what they mean is always a bit of a trick.

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What’s in a name?

There’s a set of questions I get over and over and over (and over) again, so I thought I’d write about them here. They have to do with names for things. In particular, names for aboriginal groups. In particular, the names European languages have for various aboriginal groups. No matter how many times I explain this in classes, no matter how many long explanations I offer when asked, I have to inevitably explain it again – often to the exact same people. So I figured why not explain it here? That way all these people can ignore me in a more convenient format!

Long story short: The names European languages give to aboriginal groups and their languages are often inaccurate, from the perspective of an aboriginal person, but so are most names given to most human groups by everybody. It is an inherent thing about naming; names are arbitrary, as much historical accident as anything else. Arbitrary: Just like all words in natural language.

Simple example: Where I’m from, the first ATM machines were by a company called Tyme. (Seriously; google it.) The logo was plastered all over the machines, which were at first only available at banks. To this day, most of us from Wisconsin will call the ATM a “Tyme Machine.” “I have to go to the Tyme machine.” … Even if the machine is not owned or operated by Tyme. Are we making a moral claim about ATM machines by doing this? No. The first example of the new machine in our area was used to name it. It’s a historical accident; it tells you something about the history of ATM machines in Wisconsin, but that’s about it. We’re not putting down BMO or M&I (now defunct) or whoever when we call it a “Tyme” machine. Any more than you’re putting down Scotts Tissue when you buy it because you need a new box of “kleenex.”

People are very sensitive about this process when it applies to different human communities. The confusion seems to be that an exononym (a name given by foreigners) is somehow always insulting, and they should always be forced to use an endonym instead (a name given by the group to itself). Of course, this seems to be a one-way street in all these debates; ‘Cree’ is bad because it’s not what the people call themselves, but môniyâw (‘montreal’) for European-descent people is fine, kihci-môhkomân (‘long knife’) for Americans is a-okay, even though both also derive from first-contact and historical accidents.

Below is a discussion of some names for groups – in English and in Cree. Have a read if the issue of naming really bothers you, or you’d like to know more about it.

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Posted in algonquian, colonialism, english, grammar, history, language, menominee, ojibwa, racism, semantics, translation, Uncategorized | Leave a comment