There are 170,000 members of the Native American Lakota tribe, most of whom live in North and South Dakota, but only 6000 speakers of the Lakota language. The average age of those speakers is approaching 70, meaning that without some kind of revitalization, the language could die out in a few generations.
Working to prevent that fate are staffers at the Lakota Language Consortium. Those at the institution are creating and encouraging a new generation of Lakota speakers with textbook development and teacher training for students starting at pre-school. Rising Voices, a new documentary on public television stations this month, shows these efforts to save the Lakota language in action.
One problem for language revival efforts is how to adapt the language to new concepts and ideas, or subjects that may not have had the opportunity to be discussed in the language before. The Lakota vocabulary is expanded through a yearly meeting where fluent speakers gather to coin new words to be used in teaching materials. They come up with words like wethebshala, meaning red blood cell, that take advantage of language features like compounding and suffixes. Wethebshala breaks down to we (blood)+theb (ball)+sha (red)+la (small), or small-red-blood-ball.
In the scene above, the panel discusses a new word for Antarctica, exploring possibilities like “cold land” and “ice continent.”