Dances With Wolves

The wife is watching Dances With Wolves. Russell Means nearly ruined the movie for me in an interview I read several years ago. Apparently Kevin Costner hired a Lakota Sioux woman to teach Lakota to the cast, only one of whom was a fluent Lakota speaker. Apparently no one told Costner that in Lakota, there is a male gendered form and a female gendered form. (I believe the technical description is “gender determined dialect variation”.) They are not radically different, it’s just that after some verbs, the men use one ending (or enclitic particle, to be technical), the women another. Imagine a verb suffix, but men use one suffix and women another, and though both suffix variants mean the same thing, it can sound funny when a man uses the feminine variant. Think of actor and actress, but instead of the terms meaning a man or woman who acts, an actor would be a man’s word for a person who acts, while actress would be the women’s word for someone who acts. But since, I believe, Lakota uses these gender specified enclitics in verbs but not nouns, a man would not say acting but actoring, and a woman would call acting actressing. These are all theoretical examples, since I have no idea what how to say acting in Lakota, and besides, Lakota is an agglutinative language, which means (oversimplifying to the point of absurdity) that you can have one word that we would have to write out as a sentence in English. For example, where we use whole words in a Sioux language you can use what linguists call particles, like how the syllable “ai”, added to a word, means smallness, so that there is a tribe named Yankton, meaning “Village-at-the-end” and a related tribe Yanktonai meaning “Little village-at-the-end”. I’m trying to describe why something would be funny in an agglutinative language by describing it in English, which is not agglutinative. Considering this is a one joke story, this seems like a ridiculous amount of work for nothing, and I am tempted to stoop to the methods of the radical hippie linguists in the late sixties who would spice up dry transformational grammar with obscenities, sex, drugs and rude jokes about Nixon. [Spiro Agnew][‘s] [Tricky Dick][‘s] [slick] [dick trick] [fix] [nix][ed]. I guess you had to be there.

Anyway, you could see how odd it would be for a man to say someone (doesn’t matter what sex) was actressing if actressing was a word that, by grammatical rules, was supposed to be used by women. It’s not a concept easy for English speakers to grasp, for one thing English has almost no clitics whatsoever–I’ve is one, and we’ve–and if there are gender specified words that mean the same thing, I can’t think of any. But imagine if women called any shirt a blouse (which came from the French, via the medieval ruling class) and men called a blouse a shirt (the Anglo-Saxon peasant’s term). It’s true that women sometimes call a blouse a shirt (my wife, for instance, who I believe is descended from a long line of Sioux contraries), and men will sometimes call a blouse a shirt. But a man will not call his shirt a blouse. If I showed up at the pub bragging about my new blouse, the guys would laugh and the women would correct me. (This is actually a joke in Slap Shot, by the way, the French Canadian goalie player losing at poker says fuck, I lose my blouse. His teammate says no, it’s shirt, shirt.) But I can’t think of any English verbs like this, men using one and women the other though they mean exactly the same thing. Or a verb followed by, say, a preposition that differed depending if a man or woman was using it. For instance if a man said he danced with her, but a woman said he danced at her, and they mean the exact same thing, it’s just that the man says dance with and the woman says dance at. Which, I think, is a better approximation of how these gender defined enclitics work in Lakota, and it’s part of official Lakota grammar, and Lakota grammar nazis would get all over my case if they heard me, a big gnarly dude, say she danced at me. And while that example does not explain how enclitics actually work (it gets really complicated), but it helps describe how awkward it could be if you used the wrong gender enclitic. Awkward and funny.

It’s not like there’s a lot of these gender separated enclitics in Lakota, just a handful, and I suppose the instructor figured that teaching something as complex as Lakota to English speakers (even English speaking Indians) was hard enough without getting into the finer points. And they are subtle–I don’t even think you’d notice the difference if you were a Yankton Sioux speaker, which is so close to Lakota as to be mutually intelligible, like Irish-English and American English. Lakota is unique, among the five languages of the Sioux language family, in having some enclitics for men and some for women. So, either because it was easier, or in an unheralded act of First Nation feminism, the woman instructor taught all the men the women’s endings. Any Lakota speaker could understand what they were saying, as the meaning was the same, and apparently men and women sometimes use each other’s verb suffixes and no one thinks anything about it. And it’s not like they came up in every line of dialogue.

But then it’s one thing to use the occasional female variant of the verb ending (or enclitic, suffix, whatever) and quite another to be dressed up in war paint and using only the female variants. So the actors playing fearless Sioux warriors would suddenly, mid-sentence, be talking like a woman. Talk about code switching. Russell Means and a bunch of his smartass Lakota buddies went to see the movie together and couldn’t stop laughing. Means didn’t like the movie anyway (you remember Lawrence of Arabia, he aaid, well this was Lawrence of the Plains), and sitting through three hours of something you don’t like would be bad enough even without all these actors from other tribes portraying Lakota Sioux men talking like women. And while Plains Indians may be stoic, just like in the movies, they are also funny as hell. You can imagine Russell and his buddies snickering the first couple times, then giggling, and finally laughing out loud, just waiting for the next feminine verb ending. It was like Some Like it Hot, Kevin Costner style. But only if you actually speak Lakota, which about six thousand people do. Not me, though. I just read the subtitles.

And yes, I know I never mentioned the storyline once but I stopped paying attention to the story an hour ago. It’s a good story, well acted, beautifully shot, but instead of watching I’ve been writing this and listening to the sound of Lakota Sioux, the phonemes like notes and every sentence a melody.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s