From the Desk of Olga Lovick: The Meaning of Grammar

Olga Lovick is professor of linguistics and department head at the University of Saskatchewan. She is the editor of a collection of stories of the Tetlin people of Alaska. Her new book, A Grammar of Upper Tanana, Volume 1, provides a linguistically accurate written record of the endangered Upper Tanana language.

“This is Olga,” Polly said. “She’s going to write our book.”

It was a day in August 2006 and I had known for two days that I was pregnant. I was visiting Northway—a small community in eastern interior Alaska—for the first time, together with my postdoctoral mentor, Dr. Siri G. Tuttle from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Polly Hyslop, an Upper Tanana woman who had agreed to introduce me in Northway and Tetlin, the two major Alaskan communities where Upper Tanana is spoken.

At the time, both villages were renowned for being strongholds of traditional culture and language, even as other groups throughout Alaska began to struggle maintaining theirs. But in the early years of this millennium, Upper Tanana elders began noticing that the language, which everyone (including linguists) had thought to be healthy, was no longer strong, and that the younger generations were no longer as deeply familiar with the traditional stories as the elders would wish. So Polly had contacted Dr. Jim Kari from the University of Alaska Fairbanks about this, asking if he would have time to help the community document their language. Jim knew that I wanted to work with a community in Alaska and put Polly and I in touch.

We were sitting in the kitchen of Avis and Roy Sam, two elders from Northway who would become major contributors and good friends. Like all of these initial conversations, this one was full of long silences, where the elders were trying to figure me out, and I was trying not to start chattering. After one of these silences, Avis said, “I wish my dad was still alive. He could tell you stories. And he could sing!”

As we sat talking, it became clear that the elders and Polly had a different goal from my own: they wanted me to help with the documentation of their traditional knowledge, particularly of their stories, while I was interested in the structure of their language.

Fortunately, these two goals are complementary. Every story I transcribe and translate with the help of the elders teaches me something about the language, while everything I learn about the language helps me to better transcribe and translate the elders’ words.

Some people think that grammar is boring, or unnecessary. But I think this is due to poor grammar teaching. Put most simply: “grammar” means the structure of a language—of an entire language. Grammar knowledge includes knowing which sounds there are in a language, which kinds of words, and how words are formed, and how words are put together to form different kinds of sentences. This is fascinating stuff (mind you, I’m a linguist!), and it is vital for language learners to have a grasp of grammar! Bilingual story collections are wonderful resources, but they are rarely of immediate use to language learners due to the complexity of the language used in traditional stories. Thus, I hope that in the long term, my work toward understanding the grammatical structures of Upper Tanana will support the efforts of language learners and teachers. This grammar is not a teaching grammar, but I have striven throughout to make it as accessible as possible to readers with limited knowledge of linguistics, and to incorporate as much cultural knowledge about grammatical structures as I could, which will ultimately facilitate a deeper reading of the stories.

As I was preparing the manuscript for final submission, someone asked me how much about Upper Tanana I had learned in the process (as opposed to how much I knew when I started out). I think the answer is about ninety percent; I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know. In this way, writing a grammar is similar to rearing a child—you figure it out as you go along.

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