“Adorkable.” “Manspreading.” “Frenemies.” Coining new words to fit modern needs is a practice that goes back to the beginning of language; Shakespeare, for example, is said to have introduced somewhere from 1700 to 3200 new words. Peter Hill may not be Shakespeare, but he has cataloged around 3000 new words in the indigenous Lakota language. Hill, a Philadelphian who married into Lakota fluency, runs a language immersion school at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Over the past six years, Hill and other Lakota speakers have hashed original phrases to encompass newly English concepts such as “smartphone,” “methamphetamines” and “same-sex marriage.”
For Hill, the effort to craft neologisms is key to revitalizing a marginalized language — a tongue the federal government took pains to suppress. Today, the words developed by Hill and other native speakers provide a look into how languages evolve and shape themselves. At Hill’s immersion school, everyone — from teachers to students — tries to speak Lakota 100 percent of the time. Children ages 1 to 5 run through classrooms, and play in areas filled with Lakota picture books. Hill opened the school in 2012 via online fundraising with the mission of reviving the Lakota language, which had only about 2000 speakers left as of 2016, according to the nonprofit Lakota Language Consortium.
Maintaining immersion is how Hill hopes his students learn Lakota in an English-dominated world. This has required some flexibility: When a teacher asked Hill what it meant to wear something “ironically,” he struggled to translate the exact purpose. The language did not have an exact word for the concept — and frankly, the concept was even difficult to explain in English. “We had to step back and explain,” Hill recalled, “that some people have adopted the notion that when you wear something, you’re not wearing it to look nice, but to deliberately look bad — but in a particular way that has its own cachet.” (There still isn’t a specific word for “ironically,” but they can at least explain the concept in Lakota.)
Read more: The Outline