Andrew Krug has referred me to an AP story by Richard Benke about the excellent Chiricahua Apache spoken in the film The Missing:

Word swept through the Mescalero reservation like an early winter wind that characters in the film “The Missing” spoke a dialect of Apache.
Most adult Apaches in the audiences have said they could understand every word of the Chiricahua dialect — and the children suddenly wished they could, too.

That’s what Mescalero councilman Berle Kanseah and Chiricahua linguist Elbys Hugar intended as technical advisers for the Ron Howard (news) film, a tough tale of 19th century frontier life starring Tommy Lee Jones (news) and Cate Blanchett (news) that has been in theaters for about three weeks.

Television and popular culture are killing minority cultures, starting with language, Kanseah said.

“There’s a generation gap that’s growing,” he said, suggesting Apaches aren’t the only ones facing it. “We need to enforce the home and not lose our way of life, which is our language.”

It was the first film that any of them could remember in which Apache was spoken well enough on screen to be understood. Usually, Westerns were dubbed in Navajo, a related language, said supporting actor Steve Reevis, a Montana Blackfoot who has worked several films but never spoke Apache before “The Missing.”

A rare example of Hollywood doing right by a little-known language. Kudos all around (and thanks, Andrew!).

Update (July 2022): The original link was dead, so I’ve replaced it with an archived version of the AP story which does not include the annoying “(news)” elements I was too lazy to delete in the post.


  1. Sorry, this is off topic, but what does “(news)” mean, beside each film person’s name?

  2. It takes you to a Yahoo search for that person; for instance, Ron Howard (news). I guess I could have either linked them or deleted them, but I was feeling lazy.

  3. jean-pierre says

    Don’t know if anyone’s mentioned it, but the elder in the animated film Brother Bear was speaking what seemed to me a dialect of the Inuit, In~upiaq, or Yupiq (Eskimo)language group. I recognized it from the Yupiq I learned in the Yukon-Kuskokwim rivers delta in the early 90’s.
    By the way, hope that some of you caught the program on Public Television in which a hunter from Southhampton Island in far Northern Canada teaches his son how to hunt seal. Excellent programming. Hopefully we “gussaks” (phonetic spelling for non-Yupit people) can learn from this example of father-to-son transmission of survival knowledge.

  4. Most adult Apaches in the audiences have said they could understand every word of the Chiricahua dialect

    I was just wondering whether there was a rule in English for the plural of ethnonyms. People would say (and write) “the Apaches”, as can be seen above, but very often, as far as I can infer, “all the Creek / Zuni / Guarani / Bambara / Khoikhoi / Dogon / Quechua”, without any plural marker. (Most Wikipedia articles seem to have adopted plurals without any inflection.)

    On the other hand, “the Pawnees”, “the Zulus”, “the Berbers”, “the Buriats” or “the Basques” seem perfectly normal.

    Would it be that the rule is there is no rule, just usage, which itself fluctuates a good deal?

  5. Null plurals seem to be associated with peoples perceived as tribal – but also, I think, with simply being outside the World Known to the Ancients bubble. They’re not applied to names ending in Semitic or Indo-Iranian -i; on the other hand, names that are East Asian in form, like ‘Han’ or ‘Yamato’, never seem to take the -s plural.

    For the “tribal” cases, though, I think the tendency is to use the null plural when referring to the people as a whole, but the -s plural when referring to specific people. “The Apache live in the Southwestern United States”; “Ten Apaches were in attendance.”

  6. Siganus Sutor says

    Then there would be a larger question: what is considered tribal? The Han (I wouldn’t have any metaphysical problem to write “the Hans”) cannot really be considered a tribe of a billion people, can it? Would the Afrikaner(s) consider themselves a tribe, the only white tribe of Africa as some have put it?

    “The Apache live in the Southwestern United States”; “Ten Apaches were in attendance.” — Why not, though I don’t quite see the logic behind it. A number of people seem to be talking of “the Apaches” in general terms: https://www.google.mu/#q=%22the+apaches%22
    Maybe the one without a final -s is seen as a collective body of persons, somehow like “the police, they…”

  7. At the end of “The Last Angry Moose,” Bulwinkle’s plane is shot down by hostile Apaches. It was silly enough when that show originally aired, but it works even better now, because both the context and the plural “Apaches” are more suggestive of attack helicopters than American Indians.

  8. Eli Nelson says

    I think it depends on whether the ethnonym is perceived as an adjective (like “the Portuguese”, “the French” or “the British”) or as a noun (like “the Americans” or “the Koreans”). To me, this seems to be supported somewhat by the acceptability of corresponding singular forms: “a Zulu”, “a Berber”, and “a Basque” seem better-formed to me than “a Creek” or “a Guarani”. But the latter are probably possible, (just as “a Portuguese” is technically possible) so it’s not a clear-cut thing.

  9. Also, “the Apaches” can be taken as a collective of collectives: all those groups who speak (or once spoke) Apachean languages, except the Navajo.

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