April 22, 2002

Dictionary of Jicarilla language in the works


DULCE – Wilhelmina Phone, 72, stores an ancient treasure in her memory: a language known only to a dwindling handful of Jicarilla Apaches. Once each month, she and two other fluent Jicarilla speakers meet in Dulce with University of New Mexico linguists to develop the first-ever Jicarilla dictionary.

Phone said she hopes the dictionary will spark new interest among Jicarillas in her beloved language. She estimates that of the 3,000 members of the Jicarilla nation, only about 1,000 speak it fluently and most are 20 or older. She acknowledges that the odds are against Jicarilla’s survival.

“I imagine it will disappear one of these days,” said Phone, who learned English only after she attended school in the 1930s.

“I get upset about it because you can’t just talk to anybody,” she said. “I always greet people with dáazho, which means hello. But not many people respond in Jicarilla.”

The project is funded by a $226,000 National Science Foundation grant. Researchers plan to complete the project when the three-year grant expires in January 2004.

Melissa Axelrod, a UNM linguistics professor working with the project, said efforts to document Indian languages like Jicarilla have urgency because fluent speakers are getting scarce.

“These languages are all very much in danger,” Axelrod said. Linguists estimate North America had up to 600 languages in pre-Columbian times. A 1993 study estimated that 172 survive and of those, only 20 are spoken by children, she said.

Navajo, which has as many as 172,000 speakers, is the most secure Indian language.

“And yet even that one is not secure” because many young Navajos shun the language in favor of English, Axelrod said. “They are surrounded by a dominant culture with a dominant language.”

Teachers and kids

Axelrod said the Jicarilla dictionary will include a section on Jicarilla grammar and is intended as an aid for teachers and students. Researchers ultimately want to create several versions of the dictionary that can be used by both children and adult learners.

It also will be something of an encyclopedia, with descriptions of cultural references such as foods and cooking techniques.

“It will serve as documentation of the language but also as a resource for teachers,” Axelrod said. She and Jordan Lachler, a UNM graduate student, are the two principal investigators in the project. Jule Gomez de Garcia, a professor at California State University in San Marcos, also is involved.

On a recent Saturday morning, the group gathered around a large table at the Jicarilla Apache Culture Center in Dulce, located in mountainous country about 22 miles west of Chama. They started by reading through some Jicarilla stories collected in the early 20th century.

Word by word, Phone and her co-workers read through the old stories, correcting spellings and explaining the subtle meanings of words and phrases.

Throughout the discussion, Axelrod and Lachler scribe the words on a whiteboard as Gomez de Garcia compiles words and definitions on a laptop computer.

For Phone, some words trigger memories. One word in the story “The Greedy Coyote” reminded Phone of her husband of 42 years.

“My husband always used that word,” Phone said. The word is betsa’ch’ilhchaan which means, “to eat.” But it has a more subtle meaning than iná – a conversational word. The root of the word is betsa – in your stomach.

“It’s a very descriptive word for eating food,” Phone explained. “It’s a very old word.” It means that the coyote in the story eats but remains hungry. The food doesn’t satisfy him.

Culture in language

Maureen Olson, who teaches Jicarilla in a Dulce middle school, said such words hint at a richer, more complex form of Jicarilla once used in storytelling.

“The culture is in the language,” Olson said. Embedded in the words and stories is the value system of the Jicarilla culture, she said.

Jicarilla is classified as an Athabaskan language related to Navajo and others spoken in Alaska and Western Canada. But the languages are highly distinctive. Phone said she can only understand a few words of Navajo and Mescalero Apache.

Olson and Phone are the only two Jicarilla women who feel comfortable writing the language, Axelrod said. Both women say they taught themselves how to write the language by studying the few written materials available. Researchers plan later to bring men into the project to capture additional vocabulary.

Olson, 48, said she now relies mainly on posters and blackboards to teach Jicarilla because no texts exist. Despite her work as a teacher, Olson didn’t teach Jicarilla to her children.

“I speak more Italian than I do Jicarilla,” said Olson’s daughter, Camille Valdez, 23, who dropped by the culture center in the afternoon to visit her mother.

Olson said she is trying to make amends by speaking Jicarilla with her grandchildren.

“I was brainwashed to not speak Jicarilla,” Olson said of her early years in a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. Students were routinely punished for speaking Jicarilla among themselves, she said.

“I believe that the boarding schools were a concerted effort to wipe out the culture and language of the native people,” she said.

At the Dulce Community Center that afternoon, people gathered around pool tables chatting in English, but a few say they know some Jicarilla.

Roferd Notsinneh, 33, said Jicarilla was his first language, which he spoke with his grandmother growing up.

“That’s the only language some of the older people spoke,” he recalled. Notsinneh said he still speaks Jicarilla whenever he gets a chance with family members and even his kids.

“A joke is funnier in Jicarilla than it is in English,” he said. “I don’t know why, but it is.”


AUTHOR: Olivier Uyttebrouck, Journal Staff Writer

Copyright 2002

Albuquerque Journal

Apachean Languages
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