A) What is correctness?
When people say that a word form or a sentence construction is incorrect, they can mean several different things. Below is an attempt to list some of the main types of inaccuracies:
1) The form or construction sounds foreign to native speakers.
All native speakers would agree that the sentence “* Olówaŋ waŋ lowáŋ” is an incorrect way of saying “He sang a song”. Such sentence would normally be heard only from a second language learner of Lakota, while fluent speakers would intuitively say “Olówaŋ waŋ ahíyaye”.
The incorrectness of such cases is indisputable because the judgment of correctness is based on commonly accepted patterns embedded within the system of the language. Native speakers have an intuitive ability to judge whether a construction sounds foreign or natural.
Inaccuracies of this first type are what second language learners of Lakota should be mainly concerned with and aware of when learning the language.
2) Although the form or construction sounds grammatically correct to native speakers, they feel like it is not something they themselves would use. We say that such expression is not idiomatic, which means it is usually not used by native speakers.
An example is the translation of the English sentence “Make coffee.” If we hear someone say this as “Wakȟálapi káǧa yo/ye” then such sentence is perfectly grammatical, and yet, the majority of native Lakota speakers express this idea in the following way: “Wakȟálya yo/ye”. Such well established constructions are considered idiomatic, which means that they are the common ways in which native speakers express certain concepts.
Second language learners of Lakota should work towards gradually learning the idiomatic expressions.
3) The form or construction shows varying levels of English influence.
The Lakota language has been exposed to a lot of contact with English, both within the Lakota society as well as within the minds of individual Lakota speakers, virtually all of whom are fluent in both Lakota and English. In fact, many Lakota speakers today speak English more frequently or in more situations than they speak Lakota. As a result there are many expressions and constructions used in modern Lakota that show varying degrees of English influence. Acceptance of such Anglicized expressions usually differs from speaker to speaker.
Here are some examples: Lakota has probably no direct equivalent to the English sentence “I miss you”. Some native speakers may translate this with načhíšna (from našná ‘to miss someone/something, as in trying to kick it/him/her) others may find such usage of the verb amusing and unacceptable.
The greeting “Good morning” translated with “Híŋhaŋni wašté” is another example of English influence. This translation has been repeatedly criticized but at the same time it can be heard frequently from native speakers with high competence in the language.
There are more English-influenced expressions in Lakota than native speakers generally think and most of them go unnoticed taking a life of their own. Many of them eventually become fully accepted and people no longer realize that these expressions were once created as a result of English influence. For instance the word íŋyaŋgkhiya used for expressing that someone “runs” a ceremony or an institution was never used in this sense during the era of Sitting Bull or Red Cloud. In their time one could only use this word when talking about making a horse run. The modern usage was adopted quite early on during the 20th century from the English expression “to run something (as an activity or institution)” and today íŋyaŋgkhiya is used commonly by the majority of speakers when talking about conducting ceremonies, without anyone commenting on its origin from English.
As we see from these examples, the acceptance of such expressions varies not only from speaker to speaker but also changes with time. Only time will show which of these expressions become part of the language and which will fall into disuse.
A question that rises from this discussion is this: Are some of these English-influenced expressions less or more desirable than other ones?
One possible answer to that is that English-influenced expressions can represent useful additions to the language especially if they help to fill in gaps in the lexicon for concepts and contexts used in the modern Lakota society. On the other hand, English influence should be rejected in cases where it replaces previously well established traditional expressions or if it changes Lakota structurally. Such impact of English upon Lakota is not desirable because it could change the very characteristics that make Lakota be what it is.
Some countries have national language academies that try to establish which words and expressions originating in other languages are acceptable and which are not. An example is the French Language Academy. Other countries leave the language users to make such decisions on their own or to follow recommendations made in various publications by universities and other institutions.
4) The form or construction sounds non-standard to a native speaker (slang, dialect, language change).
The last type of incorrect forms or constructions is harder to categorize and it is also one that native speakers usually disagree about the most. Different speakers may feel differently about what represents the correct (or standard) Lakota in terms of local dialects, slang or changes that naturally take place in every language. Northern Lakota speakers will claim that the word for cattle is ptewániyaŋpi while southern speakers use ptegléška. Such local variations should ideally be respected because in the end they make the language richer. The number of local variations is much smaller than what native Lakota speakers usually think.
There are also differences in the speech of different generations, because every language changes in time. Older speakers will say ničátke for ‘you choked when swallowing’ while younger speakers have a tendency to say nikátke. Speakers with higher competence will say ablésmaye for ‘he brought it to my attention’ while less fluent speakers often say ablésmakhiye. While the first case is an example of natural language change and both forms could be considered acceptable as standards, the second example shows a decrease in the language competence among less fluent speakers. Quite naturally, there will be disagreements among speakers in cases like these. One possibility of how to deal with this would be to establish a Lakota language academy which would make decisions about which forms are correct (or standard) and which are not.
B) How important is correctness?
If someone makes too many mistakes in a second language, he or she can be difficult to understand, so a reasonable level of correctness is important. Moreover, the importance of correctness has its specifics in the revitalization of endangered languages, particularly because there is a need to revitalize and maintain the very characteristics that make the language unique and different from other languages. It is therefore especially important to be aware of constructions that sound foreign or un-idiomatic, or of English influence that impacts the intrinsic structure of the language.
However, it is not always necessary to speak or write a language perfectly in order to communicate effectively. Learners should aim to avoid serious mistakes, but they should not become obsessed with correctness, or worry every time they make a mistake.
The importance of correctness will also depend on the purpose of learning the language. Those who want to become Lakota language teachers (whether they are native speakers or second language learners) should attempt to achieve a high level of correctness and idiomacity awareness, while those who learn the language for general purposes of communication need not worry about correctness to the same degree. Nevertheless, language users and learners should always strive to improve their knowledge and not be content to remain at a lower level of both fluency and accuracy.
C) What helps to raise awareness of correctness
Positive impact of awareness of correctness among language users and learners is provided by quality pedagogical and reference materials, such as dictionaries and textbooks that are linguistically sound and consistent, including spelling, structure, grammaticality and idiomacity.
An important contribution to the discussion of correctness can also be made through an on-line discussion board, like this one, where learners, teachers and speakers of the language can discuss correctness in a way that is constructive, intellectual, friendly and non-confrontational. Language users will continue to have varying opinions about correctness and acceptability of various forms and constructions, but their arguments for or against these cases need to be based in careful examinations of the usages found in texts and speeches of fluent native speakers, who remain the utmost authorities over the accuracy of the language.