How do you say “smartphone” in Lakota?

What the coining of new native words reveals about modern America.


Translating a neologism into a Native language often means appropriating the concept

In Lakota, delicatessen becomes “place where they snack quickly.”
In Umatilla, smartphone becomes “the black cloud that is always following.”
In Navajo, cell phone means “metal that you talk into.”

How do you say “smartphone” in Lakota?

What the coining of new native words reveals about modern America.

“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.)

There are many more terms like “irony” missing from the Lakota language. It’s hard to teach math in Lakota without a word for decimal; there was no word for cellphone (omás’apȟela) until recently. “Lakota has not done a lot of new word coinage in the last hundred years, other than a more concerted effort in the last few years,” Hill said. (That Hill is a white man making this effort is not lost on him — the writer of a 2013 interview noted he “doesn’t regret the feeling of white liberal guilt and idealism” that led him to Pine Ridge in the first place.)

The reason for these missing words lies in government efforts to eliminate traditional American Indian ways of life, and replace them with mainstream American culture. Beginning in the 1870s and lasting until the 1950s, the federal government sent Lakota children to boarding schools that forced them to speak English, and punished them when they didn’t. Generations of children were taught not to speak their language, and fewer people speaking meant fewer who were able to teach. No one came up with Lakota words for “computer” or “smartphone” because such a small number spoke Lakota on a day-to-day basis — and the ones who did speak tended to be older, without an active interest in translating the modern concepts.

Students studying at Hill’s school.

According to Hill, many native high schoolers now view Lakota as a relic. “It was a language old people used to talk about old-timey things,” he said. “There wasn’t a sense that it fully existed in the modern world.”

Five years ago, a council of 12 to 20 fluent Lakota speakers began meeting each summer at Sitting Bull College in North Dakota to propose new phrases. (The meetings are run by the Lakota Language Consortium.) Hill, who participates in the meetings, recalled times when the group began with a list of 100 words they needed to create, and then three hours later, they’d have only finished two. Forming new words in Lakota means really getting to the root of what the word means in English, and vice versa. (Among the phrases recently proposed: yul’aya wayázaŋsú (cancer seed) for carcinogen; ziŋtkála bubúke (clumsy bird) for puffin; yapȟápȟapi othí, (place where they snack quickly) for delicatessen.

Developing neologisms is how languages survive, according to research by Ryan Denzer-King at the University of Montana. “If people are going to continue to use a language, they must be able to say what they want to say,” Denzer-King wrote in a 2008 paper. “A language with no word for ‘cell phone’ or ‘computer’ is less likely to be used by younger generations than one which innovates.” These new terms can reference tribal myths in wry ways. Among the Umatilla of Washington, there is a story of a black cloud that hovers over the coyote, foiling the coyote’s schemes by given away his location. Smartphone in Umatilla is thus “the black cloud that is always following.”

The Navajo language is an example of this evolution. Research among the Navajo nation by Leighton Peterson in 2013 explored how in Navajo, cell phone literally means “metal that you talk into.” If you trace back the word, you can see the Navajo word for flint became the word for metal or knife (béésh), which morphed into the word for instrument or machine, which formed today’s words for cellphone (béésh bee hane'é). Wordplay can also be playful. Navajo speakers coined a word for the internet that translates to “a feed bag; you just stuff yourself,” Peterson found. Another speaker coined “Yóó’ajigháhágóó diiyá” for “I’m going to Wal-Mart,” which literally refers to “the place where you get lost.”

Peterson’s research suggests a language thrives when many people come up with new words and phrases — some of which stick and some of which don’t. Among the Lakota, the recent bach of neologisms are attempts to make sense of modern times and to update the language for the next generation. “Our words are descriptive. That’s how we like them,” Audra Platero, who has been both a teacher and an administrator at Navajo immersion schools, told The Outline.

The important thing, Hill said, is that Lakota becomes a language children speak over their smartphones. “We want Lakota to not be just a language they learn about, but something they use in their day to day life,” Hill said. “We don’t ever want to give them a sense the language is insufficient.”

J.p. Lawrence is a reporter who has written for the New York Review of Books, Vice Motherboard, the Intercept and the Christian Science Monitor.