Cheyenne and linguistics

Linguistics is the careful study of languages, their sounds, words, and how the words connect with each other to form utterances.

Prescriptive linguistics is largely discredited today in favor of descriptive linguistics. Prescriptive linguistics tells people how they should speak their language. Descriptive linguistics simply describes how people do speak.

Although there are many fine linguistic programs in the world, one does not need to go to school to become a good linguist. Probably every language group has speakers who are good linguists, that is, those who pay careful attention to how people speak their language.

Although it can be very helpful to have good labels for various kind of language behavior, you do not become a linguist by learning a list of technical labels, such as nouns, verbs, perfective aspect, performatives, illocutionary force, rhetorical questions, attributive mode, conjunct order, etc.

Cheyenne is a beautiful language. There is beauty in the way the sounds of Cheyenne pattern to create parts of words, then how these parts of words combine to create words, then how these words connect with other words to make up utterances.

There is beauty in the way so many Cheyenne words are descriptive of the objects they refer to.

Linguists do not create this beauty within languages. They simply discover it. Any speaker of a language can become a student or or even a linguist of that language.

Linguists sometimes make mistakes in how they analyze things in a language. Good linguists will be humble about this, willing to admit their mistakes, and trying to improve their understanding of the language.

Ordinary speakers of a language sometimes make mistakes in how they analyze their own language. For instance, sometimes we speakers of English will guess at the history of an English word, based on what the word means to us today and perhaps how we think it sounds like some other word. But our guesses are sometimes wrong, and we can find out that they are wrong when someone studies the history of English and discovers the true history of the words we have guessed about. When we make a mistake guessing about the history of a word in our own language it is called a folk etymology.

It is encouraging that today there is increasing interest among Cheyennes to keep their language alive. It is encouraging that increasing numbers of Cheyennes want to learn more about how their language works, what the patterns of their language are. Linguists must never tell Cheyennes how to speak. (That is the job of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, bilingual education teachers, and other fluent speakers of the language.) But linguists and Cheyenne speakers can work in a good partnership so that the language can continue to be spoken as long as possible, so that those who wish to can come to understand more about the beauty found within this language.

Sometimes there are misunderstandings about the role linguists have had as they have described languages around the world. It is true that some linguists have not been as sensitive to native speaker concerns as they should be. And it is true that linguists have made some mistakes in their analyses of languages. But we should not reject the important work of linguists simply because they might talk about nouns or verbs or tense or mode or other categories of languages. After all, as Shakespeare said, "What's in a name that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?" Languages still have nouns and verbs, tenses and aspects regardless of what we call them. Ideally, a good partnership between linguists and native speakers will produce labels for language categories which are accurate and native speakers feel comfortable with.

Best wishes to everyone who is passing on the Cheyenne language to the younger generations. Best wishes to everyone who enjoys the beauty of the Cheyenne language. Best wishes to each one of these who enjoys telling others about this beauty.

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