Media Scene

Film captures dying language in NC

Children learn Cherokee in a language immersion elementary school in Western North Carolina.
Children learn Cherokee in a language immersion elementary school in Western North Carolina. UNC-TV

Few regions of the nation match the Carolinas for the wealth of languages and dialects.

There’s Gullah or Geechee of the Lowcountry, an Elizabethian “Hoi Toide” brogue on the Outer Banks, African-American constructions, Lumbee English, southern Appalachian lilts and the amalgam brought by immigrants.

“If you like the poetry of language, you just have to rejoice in living here and meeting people,” says Neal Hutcheson, producer of “First Language – The Race to Save Cherokee,” airing Thursday on UNC-TV (10 p.m., Channel 58).

It tells the story of those trying to rekindle the language of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, who live in the rugged folds of the Blue Ridge. Of the 14,000 tribal members, perhaps 250 people speak Cherokee fluently, and each year a dozen or so are lost to old age.

In little more than a generation, the language has been all but erased by well-intentioned efforts to teach Cherokee children English, the language of prosperity. Hutcheson, who works with the North Carolina Language and Life Project at N.C. State University in Raleigh, says that preserving the native language enriches the culture of the Cherokee, once the dominant tribe of the Southeast.

“A language carries within it values and traditions, a world view and a sense of your place in the world,” says Hutcheson, a Chapel Hill native.

“There are ideas encapsulated in certain Cherokee words that don’t translate. They use a lot of English words to describe them, and still it doesn’t quite. One word means ‘The Way,’ meaning the right path of behavior, your position in the community, a concept. From that you get the character of the community a lot better.”

“First Language” follows the children at Atse Kituwah (ot-say gid-u-wah) Immersion Academy, who on their way to class pass a hallway banner that says “English Stops Here” and are taught only in Cherokee.

“They also receive instruction about English, ironically, as a second language,” Hutcheson says.

“Cherokee is a beautiful language to hear. In the film you get to hear a lot of spoken Cherokee. I doubt there is any film that has more Cherokee than this one does,” he says.

A healthy language is one that is always adapting, which brings challenges for the ancient Cherokee tongue. There are no words for computers or laptops or telephones, Hutcheson says, and native speakers must be gathered to confer and come up with new words.

Hutcheson worked on the film with Danica Cullinan, a documentary filmmaker specializing in linguistic diversity in North Carolina, and NCSU sociolinguist Walt Wolfram.

“‘First Language’ explores a connection between language and identity that is fundamental to the human experience, yet in its particulars it is a North Carolina story,” says Wolfram, author of “Talkin’ Tar Heel.”

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