Exhibit in Museum of Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center

Language of the Month July 2021: Koyukon

If you are following us on social media, you have seen that during my travels I do as much as possible to document indigenous languages throughout the world. While in some places information is scarce, I have noticed that a large number of history, cultural, and even science museums in the US are making an effort to introduce visitors to these languages through special exhibits or woven throughout other exhibits.

A small portion of the exhibit in Fairbanks, Alaska

This summer I was fortunate enough to travel to Fairbanks and Bettles, Alaska, for a bit of a secluded getaway. At the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center in downtown Fairbanks, there is a wonderful exhibit on the languages of native Alaskans, and the preservation efforts. You may have seen the pictures posted to Instagram. From this exhibit, I learned that an indigenous language spoken in Fairbanks is Koyukon.

An Athabascan language also known as Denaakk’e (meaning people like us), Koyukon is a widespread language spoken along the same-named river in western interior Alaska. Today, there are about 300 speakers, although around 2500 identify as Denaakk’e. There are 3 dialects; all share 29 consonants and 4 long vowels, with 3 reduced variations. 

What is most interesting about the language is despite its relatively small number of speakers, it is one of the best documented indigenous languages in the United States. Jules Jetté, a Jesuit missionary, spent the majority of his time from 1899 to 1927 living with the Koyukon people, and, during this time, he wrote extensively on the language, including vocabulary, grammar, and culture.

However, until 1970, these works were largely ignored, despite being in the archives of the University of Fairbanks, Alaska. During this time, Eliza Jones, a native Koyukon, discovered Jetté’s notes and used them in conjunction with tribal elders to form a comprehensive Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary, now published by the university. 

Today, the Alaska Native Language Center offers classes on Koyukon, in addition to scholarly publications including the Dictionary. The ANLC on the whole is making efforts to preserve 20 of Alaska’s rich languages. With a holistic approach of teaching 3-5 year olds to become proficient in the language, in addition to providing materials for all learners and a focus on community engagement, the ANLC is showing that even with only a small number of speakers, a language can still be revitalized and even flourish.

Further Reading

Fairbanks Native Association’s Indigenous Language Project: https://www.fairbanksnative.org/our-services/education/head-start/indigenous-language-project/

Omiglot’s resource on writing Koyukon
https://omniglot.com/writing/koyukon.htm

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Fanni is Radnóti's wife
Located near the Tang capital city of Chang’an, site of the modern city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, in central China.
Soldiers of that time commonly wore a white head cloth, similar to what is still worn by some peasants in China today.  The implication is that the conscripts were so young that they didn’t know how to wrap their head cloths, and needed help from elders.
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
The area of Guanxi, meaning “west of the passes”, refers to the area around the capital city of Chang’an.
This is an alternative name for a province in western China, now known as Qinghai, which literally means “blue sea”.  Kokonor Lake, located in Qinghai, is the largest saline lake in China.  
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
Oulart Hollow was the site of a famous victory of the Irish rebels over British troops, which took place on May 27, 1798. The rebels killed nearly all the British attackers in this battle. (Source: Maxwell, W. H. History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798. H. H. Bohn, London 1854, pp 92-93, at archive.org)
The phrase "United Men" is elaborated upon in the Notes section below.

Ghetto


An Italian word meaning “foundry.” It originally referred to a part of the city of Venice where the Jews of that city were forced to live; the area was called “the ghetto” because there was a foundry nearby. The term eventually came to refer to any part of a city in which a minority group is forced to live as a result of social, legal, or economic pressure. Because of the restrictions placed upon them, ghetto residents are often impoverished.

"You’re five nine, I am do-uble two"


A reference to the year 1959 and the year 2020.

"The Currency"


Meaning US dollars - this is drawing attention to the fact that Cuba is effectively dollarized.

"Sixty years with the dom-ino stuck"


This sentence is a reference to the Cold War notion that countries would turn Communist one after the other - like dominos. Cuba was the first domino, but it got stuck - no one else followed through into communism.

رحلنا


رحلنا, or "rahalna," means "we have left."

Habibi


Habibi means "my love."

Ra7eel


Ra7eel, or "raheel," means "departure."

3awda


3awda, or "awda," means "returning."

أهلاً


أهلاً, or "ahalan," means "welcome."

a5 ya baba


a5 ya baba, pronounced "akh ya baba," means "Oh my father."

golpe


Treece translates "golpe" as "beating", which is correct, however misses the secondary meaning of the word: "coup".

Carlos


The “Carlos” referred to in the poem is most likely Carlos Bolsonaro, a politician from Rio de Janeiro and the second son of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president. His and his father’s involvement in Marielle’s murder has been questioned and investigated.