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An article about articles...or how to be an Indian

One of the most enjoyable and challenging things about writing a novel is realistically depicting foreign or ethnic accents and cadences.  I always use impeccable standard English grammar for the narrative, but for anything within direct quotes...all bets are off.

Being closely associated with Athabaskan Indians for several decades now, it's hard to avoid absorbing some of these influences....it's easy to become IBO....Indian By Osmosis.  Athabaskan, (which is very closely related to Navajo...in fact we have some descendents of the famous "Wind Talkers" up here) is nearly devoid of articles.  When you really look at English, most of our articles are redundant or unnecessary.  I'll pick a book off the shelf and say, "What do you think about this book?"  Why do I say "THIS" book?  I've got it in my hand....what other book would I be talking about?  An Indian will pick up a book and say, "What do you think about book?"  Right to the point.  No unnecessary verbiage.

This practice, by the way, is totally unrelated to education level, or number of years speaking English.  Most of the Athabaskans I know  have been speaking English longer than I have.  One of our most highly regarded Athabaskan statewomen...a lady with a Harvard law degree, will drop articles in exactly  the same manner, in the midst of an eloquntly delivered speech.  It is charming and disarming for its directness.

 And I've caught myself doing it on occasion.

 Languages are most revealing by what they DON'T consider important.  Mandarin Chinese has no tenses.  You have to figure out tense entirely by context.  I imagine that, now that China is highly industrialized and fast-paced, tense will eventually creep into the language.  Or, more likely, what seems to be happening, a tense-rich language like English will become the standard.

On the other hand, Spanish is a bit of a mystery.  Latin Americans have never been particularly driven by El Reloj, and yet Spanish has as sophisticated a tense structure as anyone's...perhaps even more so than English.  They have all the perfect tenses and moods and tine-sensitive nuances that we do, plus a few.  I suspect that time may have had much greater import in distant history....we do know the Mayans and Aztecs had decent clocks.

Anyway, back to articles.  It seems that a lot of articles in English pertain to ownership.  My widget.  Your widget.  Their widget.  Our widget.  The widget derives a good deal of its identity by who owns it.  Madison Avenue derives its power by the manipulation of widget ownership articles.  The fact that a Rolls Royce or  a Rolex exists is nowhere near as important as whether or not you own that particular Rolls Royce or Rolex.  English is particularly suited to materialism.  An article-less language, far less so.  (Maybe it's no accident that these are called articles in the first place!)

In a subsistence society, at least in the not terribly distant past, it was quite likely that there would only be one of any particular widget in the community.  If there was only one gun in a village, any further descriptive articles for "gun" would have been superfluous.

The lack of ownership articles in Athabaskan language seems to have an almost frighteningly mystical unifying property.  Alaska covers an unimaginably  HUGE geographical area, over half a million square miles,  and native villages are fairly scattered across the entire land mass.  And yet, if you talk to anyone who's been up here for more than a vacation, you'll inevitably hear them say something like this:  "Is it my imagination, or does every Indian in Alaska know every OTHER Indian in Alaska?"

It's not your imagination.

This becomes even more evident if you've grown up in a place like Silicon Valley, where you're lucky to know the last name of the family that lives two houses away from you.

It's like living in a small town that's two and a half times the size of Texas.

What's really unnerving is that now, after about thirty five years,  it seems that every Athabaskan in Alaska knows ME!  I suppose that's both good and bad.  At the worst, it means there's nowhere I can hide.  At the best, it means I can sell a lot of books up here!

 And then I can ask anyone, "What do you think of book?" with no article required.

 

 

Eric

 

 

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