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2018-04-12 / Voices

Lakota Writing Systems


As the late Albert White Hat writes in his book written in 1999, Reading and Writing the Lakota Language: Lakota Iyapi un wowapi nahan Yawapi, the history of Lakota orthography which in his memory began in 1971. Orthography is important in language learning. According to the dictionary it is the art of writing words with the proper letters according to standard usage such as the rules of English orthography.

Lately, the way it’s been used is in the representation of the sounds of Lakota by written or printed symbols. As my students in Lakota know, the overuse of “h’s” in the way Lakota is written today. So, that the linguists and their students have created a new dialect in the new millennium called the “H” dialect; so now we have LHDN.

In looking back, 1971 was not that long ago, if you look at the establishment of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations a hundred years earlier. How did the original speakers write the language prior to 1971?

Those born earlier, like George Sword whose birth year is in our winter counts in 1847. A man born almost nearly 200 years ago, whose Lakota writing (George Sword’s Warrior Narritives) I have helped translate from 2007 to 2017 (It took almost seven full years to translate it). He wrote as he spoke. His writing used only English letters to represent all Lakota sounds.

Today, if we teach and are interested only in asserting new writing systems, how will the coming generations access the writing of George Sword and others who wrote about our Lakota culture? He is not the only Lakota author, there were many, many others. Their writings in Lakota are kept in numerous repositories (libraries) in many parts of the country.

It is something that has made me aware of what writing system I teach. I want my students to be able to access that knowledge. The legacy George Sword and others have left for them.

In a conversation, some years back, I sat with a relative, a well-respected Lakota language teacher at our tribal college on the Pine Ridge reservation, the late Wilmer Mesteth. We were enjoying a lunch of fried fish (his favorite food). He told me a story about eating lunch on Friday at school. As anyone that grew up on the reservation when he did knows, on Friday’s only fish sticks were served. He said, he would collect everyone’s unwanted fish sticks and enjoy them more than any other kid.

Our conversation was about the guttural sounds in our language. I asked him how he represented those sounds and he said, simply with a “dot” over the English letter. When I was learning in training in the Marines, especially among the men, the motto was “KISS”. What it means is “Keep It Simple Stupid”. The truth in it is, the more complicated something becomes, the sooner you realize that just maybe it’s another way to keep you from acquiring knowledge that is right in front of you all along.

White Hat tells us that in 1982, state-wide meetings resulted in a pronunciation guide where 18 of the sounds in Lakota are also found in English. These are basic vowels and Lakota consonants with English sounds. That there are only 22 sounds that are unique to Lakota. These are the nasal vowels and 19 consonant sounds. In total there are 40 possible sounds in Lakota. Today, in many of the most new dictionaries there are as many as 55 or more Lakota sounds that non-Lakota authors dictate.

What I know as a Lakota language teacher is that our language is old and conservative. It is slow to change. The writings of George Sword and his contemporaries map out a road home. We as teachers, and our students as learners, need to know how to read the old text.

Delphine Red Shirt:

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