December 16, 2018

The very last part of our Linguistics training program involved spending two months living in Oklahoma and learning about grammar and culture from a group of native Cherokee.

Oh man, what a fantastic learning experience this was. It was difficult and not always fun, but the amount of exposure we gained to a new language and new culture was so helpful.

Let me give you a breakdown of what our time with the Cherokee people involved:

There were 14 of us students who participated in the Oklahoma Practicum part of the Linguistics Program. We were each divided into teams of 2 or 3 and assigned a Native Cherokee language speaker. Emily, Kati and I were a team with Weynema, a lovely 87 year old Cherokee woman.

Together, the four of us came up with a consistent meeting schedule that gave our team 10 hours a week of language practice sessions for eight weeks. For each session, Emily, Kati and I had to come up with a lesson plan for what we wanted to investigate, record our session, take notes, debrief afterwards, and process and organize our data; we then used that to drive our following lesson plans to learn as much as possible in the eight weeks. At the end of our time each week we were responsible to pay minimum wage to our language helper, using money that we had saved.

These are ALL things we will be doing in a tribe in Papua New Guinea; so to get to attempt each thing (and fail and adjust, and fail and adjust) will be incredibly beneficial in the future.

The goal of the Cherokee practicum is to practice planning beneficial sessions, process collected data and work as a team. The goal is NOT to learn to speak Cherokee, but to use various techniques we’ve learned in our linguistics courses to practice analyzing a live language from a native speaker.

**If you don’t want to read all the academic things, feel free to skip to the next section!**

Our learning goals in Oklahoma were divided into two overarching sections: Phonemics and Grammar.

Stage one was Phonemics. Phonemics involves listening to a lot of native speech, and from that identifying all the sounds that exist in the language; the next step is distinguishing which sounds speakers think of as the same sound and which they recognize as different. This ultimately gets turned into an alphabet. Cherokee already has this done of course, but to simulate a tribal situation with an undocumented language, we didn’t look at any of the Cherokee letters or syllabaries. Below is an example of what "distinguishing sounds" means:

In English, if you say the word mom and top, English speakers hear the same vowel - a short o. However, these are actually two different vowels. One is nasalized and one is not. Say the word mom again, but with your nose plugged, and the word top again with your nose plugged. Hear the difference now? In English, our ears don’t pick up on these two sounds being different, so in our alphabet they are expressed as one letter. However, Cherokee does hear those two vowels as distinct and separate. So they have to be expressed as different letters. To interchange the o in mom for the o in top would create completely separate words with distinct meanings. (The process to figure out what a native speaker hears and doesn’t hear is a little lengthy, so I’ll skip explaining it here).

The final stage in the phonemic process is to come up with a proposed alphabet by reducing all the sounds present in the language to just the ones that hearers actually distinguish.

Each of us had to submit our phonemic analysis (60 pages) to our professor at the end of week 4. Obviously, this process will take quite a bit longer in the tribe to ensure complete thoroughness and accuracy, but because of limited time we had to compile an analysis the best we could.

Stage two was grammar. This involved a lot of trying different things and failing, which was disheartening at times but gave us a much better idea of how to go about grammar study with an undocumented language in the future. The first thing to start with is nouns and work your way up to verbs, stems, modifiers, then phrases, clauses and complete sentences.

Here's a random interesting fact about nouns: there are no words in Cherokee for body parts or family members. You can’t say arm, and you can’t say dad. You have to specify whose arm and whose dad. For some family members (including grandparents, brothers and sisters), you have to specify whose brother, AND what the gender is of the person whose brother it is.

Here are a couple things to emphasize how difficult verbs are: In English, we have one word for cut, regardless of what you’re cutting. In Cherokee, the verb root for cut changes form depending on what you’re cutting: if you’re cutting something hard or round, or flexible, or short, or long. All these would be expressed with different prefixes and suffixes on the word cut. Same thing goes for any action verb. Another example: if you want to indicate that you picked up an apple, the prefixes and suffixes on the verb “pick” change if you picked it from the tree, if it had already fallen and you picked it up from the ground, or you picked it from a bushel at the store etc. In English we would just say I picked it off the tree, or I picked it from the bushel, but with Cherokee, shape and location are required to be reflected on the verb itself. This makes for some loooooong verbs.

Another complicated thing about verbs as opposed to English is actor person. In English, we have 1st, 2nd, 3rd person and singular and plural. In Cherokee, they have 1st, 2nd, 3rd person and singular, plural, dual, exclusive and inclusive. In English, more than one is plural. In Cherokee, two is dual, and three or more is plural. In English when we talk about “we,” we’re including everyone in the group. In Cherokee, there are different ways to say “we” including everyone in the group, and “we” excluding one of the people from the group. Plural and dual both have the inclusive and exclusive option. That gives English 6 possible actor persons and Cherokee 10. Compound that with the fact that Cherokee has at least 6 action verb noun classes (English has 1). Each class has separate ways to show each of the 10 actor persons. Classing verbs with actor persons was quite the excel spreadsheet.

All that to say, next time a native English speaker complains about English being the hardest language, I’m going to laugh.

For the grammar write up, we had four weeks of sessions with our language helper, and then 2 weeks after that to compile our findings and turn in our grammar analysis (75 pages). Again, the time allotted was obviously not enough time to learn the grammar of a language, we just learned what we could and made hypotheses on things we couldn’t figure out. The purpose was to practice our linguistic techniques with a live language from a native language speaker.

Such a great out of classroom experience.

**If you skipped the academic part, pick up here!**

While in Oklahoma, it wasn’t all learning and studying. We visited Cherokee cultural places, went to Church with our language helper (and greeted the same spider every week), ate some fabulous Indian tacos, learned how to weave baskets the traditional way, met some kind and faithful people, listened to some heart wrenching stories from American-Cherokee history, learned some Cherokee songs, enjoyed kanuchi - a specialty drink made with hominy and ground hickory nuts, listened to stories of traditional beliefs and heard countless memories from Weynema’s childhood.

We stayed at a camp in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and cooked and ate all of our lunches and dinners together in the cafeteria as a team. Including spouses and kids, there were about 30 of us. This provided even more teamwork practice for the days ahead, and I won’t lie, it was pretty nice to get back to school and cook for just the two of us.

And now, we’re back in North Carolina! More info to come later about our plans between now and our move to Papua New Guinea next year.

Thank you to everyone who keeps up with us, prays for us, or sends us encouraging cards or emails. It’s a huge comfort to be supported and know we’re not doing this alone.