5 facts for a powwow

25 Apr

Today through Saturday is the Gathering of Nations Powwow in New Mexico, so we thought it’d be a good time to highlight some of our favorite things about the indigenous languages of the US and Canada.

There are important stories to be told about these languages. Their disappearance—erasing—is a personal, cultural, historical, and scientific loss. But today we’d like to focus on celebrating their vitality. We’ll ease you in with some English borrowings, then show you a handful of fun things that languages do. There are all sorts of reasons that language revitalization is a good idea. Today we focus on just one of them: joy. Please share your own favorites in the comments.

1. Powwows come from Rhode Island

The word powwow comes from the Narragansett word for shaman (closer to powwaw, originally). When we use it in English, it means a conference or gathering of people. That’s because if there was an important Narragansett gathering going on, a healer/holy person would have been present. So English speakers took the name for an important role as the name for the events where he showed up.

Like a lot of native languages, there aren’t any native speakers of Narragansett left—though the tribe is trying to revitalize it based on earlier records of the language. One small record of the language is in the words you and I speak.

In addition to powwow, Narragansett also gives us squash (the edible kind, not the verb—from askútasquash; the verb kind of squashing was around during Middle English when it was squachen from the Old French esquasser from the Latin quassāre, ‘to shatter’). It’s where papoose comes from (papoòs, ‘child’). And fans of Family Guy should know that Narragansett gave us the name of a certain edible clam: quahog (from poquaûhock).

2. English didn’t just borrow powwow and Massachusetts

Native American languages also gave us: moose, raccoon, skunk; caucus, kayak, pecan. And bayou. And husky.

  • Moose is from mos in Eastern Abenaki (Maine, Quebec)
  • Raccoon is from the Virginia Algonquian (Powhatan) arathkone
  • Skunk is from the Massachusett squnck (one guess where Massachusetts comes from)
  • Caucus is from the Algonquian caucausu (‘counselor’)—but this is contested. The first use in English is about Boston’s Caucas Club, which could be from the Algonquian or from the medieval Latin for ‘drinking vessel’ (both are relevant, as you can guess).
  • Kayak is from Inuit and Yupik qajaq
  • Pecan is from French (pacane), but it got into French from the Illinois pakani
  • Bayou also comes to English from the French, but it got there (maybe) from Choctaw bayuk

Husky is a corruption of Eskimo. But to be totally honest, this is really just the origin of the dog breed. The ‘heavily built person’ sense probably comes from husk (which itself comes from ‘little house’ and ‘apple core’ in Middle Dutch: hūskijin). Here’s an extra one to make up for that: Winona is from Lakhota Winúŋnã, which means ‘firstborn daughter’.

3. Not everyone needs six syllables to do something unintentionally

Ahtna, Koyukon, Tanana, and Carrier are languages spoken in Alaska, the Yukon, and in British Columbia (the language family is called “Athabaskan” and also includes Navajo). These languages have what’s been called  an “errative” marker. As in ‘err’ or ‘oops’. Basically, you add it to a verb to mean “this verb-ing was unintentional”.

In Koyukon the form is naa-, so you can laugh-naa or buy-naa new shoes. (I know it looks like you’d say naa like /ah/ but the spelling in Konyukon means that the vowel is more like vowel in English hat.)

4. Havasupai speakers don’t get “him” and “him” confused.

Down near the Grand Canyon, Havasupai speakers are able to be rather specific with their pronouns:

  • yaj: he (right by me)
  • vaj: he (near me)
  • nyuj: he (near you)
  • thaj: he (over there)
  • waj: he (far away, out of sight)
  • vuj: he (that was here but is gone now)

(Look at that last one again it’s my favorite.)

5. Cherokee verbs are awesome

People often talk about Cherokee’s great script and you owe it to yourself to go check it out. Is there a better way to write ‘ya’ than Ꮿ?

But what I want to talk about instead is that for a lot of Cherokee verbs you are required to have a marker that matches the thing that the verb is affecting. So if you ‘give’ something, it matters whether you’re giving something living, liquid, bendy, long, or compact. How fun is that?

(3) Wèésa gá-káà-èè’a

cat 3rdperson.to.3rdperson-LIVING-give.present

‘She is giving him a cat.’

(4) Àma gá-nèè-èè’a

water 3rdperson.to.3rdperson-LIQUID-give.present

‘She is giving him water.’

 (5) Àhnàwo gá-núú-èè’a

 shirt 3rdperson.to.3rdperson-FLEXIBLE-give.present

 ‘She is giving him a shirt.’

 (6) Gànsda aá-d-èè’a

 stick 3rdperson.to.3rdperson-LONG-give.present

 ‘She is giving him a stick.’

 (7) Kwàna aá-h-èè’a

peach 3rdperson.to.3rdperson-COMPACT-give.present

 ‘She is giving him a peach.’

If you don’t know which marker to put in there, you use the ‘compact’ one. (I should probably also mention that there are some changes to the first prefix, please let me know if you know why.)

These examples come from Mary Haas by way of Barbara Blankenship. But I want to be sure to also credit Cherokee speakers Virginia Carey and Levy Carey who helped Blankenship in 1997 and the speakers Haas worked with back in 1948, whose names seem to be lost to us (which was all too often the case, though my impression is that speakers get acknowledged fairly consistently these days).

Special bonus!

I’m including one more sentence just because it makes me happy. It’s from Eastern Ojibwa, which is spoken in Southern Ontario (about 26,000 speakers by a 1998 census). Eastern Ojibwa is part of a larger group of languages that are often called Ojibwa but also sometimes known as Anishinaabemowin. (Btw, English chipmunk may come from Ojibwa ajidamoonʔ.)

(8) “mii maanpii wii-bkeyaanh” kido giiwenh wa mko

but here intend-turn.off. I singular.say. he/she singular.it.is.said that bear

 “Well, this is where I turn off,” the bear said.

– Tyler Schnoebelen (@TSchnoebelen)



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