Preserving the Apache language


Dictionary: Compilers of a new wordbook hope their work will save a tongue that is fading in Native American communities dominated by TV programs in English.


PHOENIX -- Dorothy Bray can translate hundreds of Apache words and explain how to write their clicking and nasal sounds.

She knows all about Apache grammar and how words spoken by White Mountain Apaches in central Arizona differ from those of San Carlos Apaches near Phoenix.

Just just don't ask her to speak Apache.

"I'm too chicken," says the 60-year-old retired college teacher who spent nearly 15 years editing the new Western Apache-English Dictionary published last year by Arizona State University.

She hesitates to speak the language because some words change meaning just by being stretched out a mite longer, a minute difference that Bray is unable to hear. "If I say something, I'd end up saying something different."

For example, "bita" means "forehead," but "bitaa," with a slightly longer "aa" sound, means "my father," says Edgar Perry, an Apache who teaches youth and adult language classes in White-river and Cibicue.

If you tried to say you slapped your forehead but stretched out the "aa" too long, it could be embarrassing.

A second attempt

In the 1940s, volunteer Bible translators began to record Apaches talking. They devised a way to write down their language, then translate words into English and vice versa. The new 10,500-word dictionary is the second of two Apache-English dictionaries published in Arizona, but it includes about five times as many words as the first, released in 1972.

Perry, 61, who worked on both dictionaries, hopes the new book will prolong interest in the Apache language, which he says is losing out in Native American communities to English-dominated television.

He estimates about 70 percent of the public school students in Whiteriver can't speak Apache or understand just a little.

"They [Apaches] should get away from TV and ride a horse and go see grandma and learn a language. But it's English, all the time English, English, English," Perry says.

Many youths are not receptive to learning the language of their ancestors.

`Too stubborn'

"Little kids, they enjoy it at first," says Perry. "Some learn, but some are too stubborn. They would understand it if their parents talked to them."

The dictionary is aimed mainly at the White Mountain Apaches who live on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in east-central Arizona and San Carlos Apaches on the San Carlos Apache Reservation east of Phoenix. The book includes their different dialects.

About 30 members of the White Mountain Apache tribe spent about 15 years writing Apache words and their translations by hand on index cards for the latest dictionary. The work stalled in the late 1980s for lack of money, then resumed when a news report on the languishing dictionary opened up new funding.

Bray was one who came back to the project after dropping out for several years. "I guess it just kept haunting me," she says. "I felt if I didn't do it, it wouldn't get done."

Arizona State University's Bilingual Press came on board and worked with the project for another decade until it was done, partly with the help of a $3,000 grant from the Arizona Humanities Council.

It took another 10 years because all the handwritten notes had to be typed and entered into a computer for typesetting. Bray says there were countless meetings to check and recheck the meanings and spelling of words.

Some of the longtime volunteers didn't live to see the dictionary published, including Wesley Bonito, a former tribal education director who died in 1995; and Faith Hill, one of the early Bible translators who died a few months before the dictionary was published.

The project was complicated because Apache, like its Navajo cousin, has nasal, clicking and other sounds that can't be captured by the English alphabet, and some new characters had to be created. For example, one sound is made by putting your tongue on the roof of your mouth. It is depicted by an "l" with a slash through it. The closest Perry can describe it is the "tl" sound in the word "atlas."

The grammar also is different. Separate gender pronouns such as he and she don't exist. Plural words refer to three or more, instead of two or more as in English.

Verbs come at the end of the sentence. For example, the sentence "The horse is licking the salt" would be "Horse salt licking" in Apache, Perry says.

Naming modern concepts

In some cases, it takes a half-dozen or more Apache words to say one English word, especially business and technology terms. "New words had to be made for all the 20th-century inventions," Bray says. "Dividend," for example, is conveyed by Apache terms for `"where money is kept/you are part shareholder."

Apache, like many other Native American languages, predates the arrival of the Spanish missionaries in the 1500s. Apaches incorporated many words introduced by the Spaniards or Mexicans, such as apple, ax, barrel, cough, cow, dry, gold, money, onion, owl, pig, pocket, potato, scar, scarf, soldier and thread, according to the earlier dictionary.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.