I Always, You Never: A Celebration of Village English

When we speak, the way that we sound comes from our families, our communities and our homes.

They are unique to who we are. They don’t sound like other how people speak on the television or in movies or even in other parts of the state. Many of us so cherish our own dialects in our indigenous languages; however, when we speak in English, is it the same?  Or do we feel like the ways of our community in this regard are lesser?

Our ways of speaking are beautiful. They sound like us. They come from somewhere.

“Broken English”

In the recent history of our peoples, many have internalized “different” means “not as good.” But there is so much about how our peoples speak that makes it special. So much of our languages are retained in how we speak English — our intonation, pronunciation, timing, and even how we construct our sentences.

In wider American and Western culture, many subconsciously link the speed of talking and word choice to levels of intelligence; it’s as if the level of verbal agility is aligned with mental agility, as well.

Because of how our communities have our own values for how we regard communications, and so many other reasons, these assumptions are far removed from our truths.

To some, community ways of talking might seem like “broken English,” and if how bright you are is perceived through manner of speech, then it’s our community members who absorb the repercussions for that concept.

Like anything that gets introduced, we’ve taken English and made it our own, and oftentimes our community ways of talking look like our indigenous languages. When you hear people say, “I go store,” in my family’s language you literally say, “Store-go-I;” we don’t have the articles that English has, and many of our phrases are translations for which there is not an English equivalent. With these consistent, direct connections to our ancestors, our ways of speaking are anything but broken.

You Always, I Never

“You always!” “I never!” “Sometimes I always…” As Iñupiaq language teacher Mary Huntington shared, “I didn’t consciously realize that I felt bad about the way I speak until I saw, until I took the Iñupiaq grammar class and saw, “Oh, that’s why we say it this way, versus the other way.”

“I mean we always laugh about “Sometimes I always” because “sometimes” and “always” in English are conflicting terms. You can’t sometimes always do something. But in Eskimo, the way we use “always” is more “habitually.” “Sometimes I habitually do that.” To see the direct correlation between our language that we don’t know and the English that we speak, versus just the English we’re told to speak, you know that’s a real self-esteem downer to not realize that what we’re doing is legitimate for all reasons and not just cultural pride.” While this specific  example may not be found in every region of the state, it is an example of how our phrasing can draw from our Native languages.

Alaska can be entirely different in its expanse, so how we use English is going to have variations across regions as well. Naturally, it can be a learning curve for anyone moving across regions where English is used differently, especially between our urban areas where speech is largely patterned after the wider English-speaking world.

However, some grow adept at speaking between audiences, and for those speaking to the need to communicate using dominate English, many already do.  Additionally, how many of us have felt involuntarily compelled for our manner of talking to reflect who we’re speaking to? In communications terms, this is called code-switching, which is entirely human and natural.

People may also have varying comfort levels with English. I was staying with my Great Uncle in my family’s village when he shared the joys of everyone speaking in our language: “People always have so much more to say! And they’re smart! They’re very smart.”

Local Relationships With Words

I once heard a community leader say that the people of my respective region are “not above anything: the land, the animals, or other human beings…except maybe talking.”

In some local traditions, speaking can both limit and diminish an experience, so why must everything be defined?  As one of my elders has shared with me, speech is spiritual; animals can read our thoughts, and if you’re speaking, you’re not paying the environment its fullest owed attention. Additionally, the ways which many communicate through looks and glances and body language renders some speaking entirely redundant, with different emphasis on learning through practice and observation.

Many of us cherish the dialects of our family’s region or village; with English, is it the same?

The ways in which we communicate are special and beautiful. They look like us. They come from somewhere.

Not better, not worse; just different.

Photograph by Tennessee Judkins

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