Thursday, April 29, 2010

Linguistics luncheon, 4-28-10

Webster, A. (2010, April 28). Urinating donkeys, abalone shells, and Disney: On unintentional punning and interlingual punning among Navajos. Linguistics Luncheon, Illinois Room, Student Center.

Dr. Webster had come to my class two days earlier to talk about kinship systems, and I was very interested in the Navajo anyway. His talk was about the social roles of interlingual puns, and I realized that I live in a world of interlingual puns, where people, upon learning English, are often finding words that sound similar to words in their own language, thus enjoying a little interlingual ambiguity or the ability to jump back and forth from one mind to another.

Though he admitted that the title was mostly to draw an audience, and that he had unexpectedly drawn more than at a conference where his title was perhaps duller, he did give an explanation for the urinating donkeys, abalone shells, and Disney. The donkey was related to television: telii alizhgo in Navajo is "urinating donkey." This was often related to the drinking of beer, he pointed out, though I missed the specific reference or how they were related. A priest apparently continually addressed children as abalone shells, and the name of Canyon de Chelly (or Chinle) in Navajo often sounds like "Disney" thus causing Navajos to make subtle remarks about what has happened to one of their favorite places.

Both in my class and in the lecture he told the story told by Robert Young, of J.H. Beedle recording "Holahei" as the Navajo word for "God." Apparently when he asked Navajos about God, giving his western view of a single guy who controls everything, the Navajo said, "I don't know" (Hola) and then later added an emphatic (Hei) to say, "I really don't know!" This became recorded as the Navajo word for "God" and stood for twenty years or so, until it was straightened out later. A joke involving the word "Hola" has an anglo linguist explaining that Navajo is such a hard language that it's almost impossible to learn. At one point he asks a Navajo sitting nearby, "What does "Hola" mean?" to which the Navajo responds, "I don't know." The linguist now says, "See? Even the Navajo don't know what these words mean!"

There was much in this lecture that I could repeat but I'm saving things I thought I could use later. One is that the expression shikaa ch'elinood (with stress accents on the vowels that I cannot replicate) sounds like Chicago Illinois and means literally "it soared over me (like a snake)". People were known to shout out "Chicago Illinois" at various points of a lecture, apparently; this would be something to keep in mind for later, I'm sure.

He made a point about the endangered nature of Navajo that I thought was very important. It was that it is very hard for older Navajos to get their children to learn Navajo, and part of the reason is that they have much higher expectations of their children, than, say, they would have of an anglo anthropologist. The lecture brought up lots of miscommunications between missionaries, anthropologists, tourists, and the various people who have poked their heads into the Navajo world, but the damage done by putting Navajo children in boarding schools was a crippling blow, not that it untaught anyone the language, but that it forced them to be reminded, every time they hear it, of an unpleasant history. Much the same as Yiddish, a crippling blow is dealt by the mere circumstances of what the language comes to represent; what a tragedy for a rich and wonderful language. The Navajo are a nation of 300,000; their reservation is the size of West Virginia; they are the largest and most prosperous of all First Nations; but they are having trouble keeping their language alive.

Two more stories. One involves the Navajo kids in school, pledging allegiance to the flag, and saying "with liberty, ajetsin for all (and a leg bone)- reminding us of all the various interpretations given to rote forced chants over the years. Another involves the Navajo poet who says, "Every time I speak Navajo it's an act of resistance"....yes, but resistance to what? To the inevitable decrease of the language, I'm sure. But also to the cruel fate, that the circumstances, more than anything else, have tricked the Navajo into not using it.

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Friday, April 16, 2010


In New Mexico over spring break, I was rifling through some old papers in my parents' genealogy file. My great grandfather had been a historian, in Council Bluffs, IA, and had collected a number of papers that had been thrown in with the genealogy information. These papers had to do with Iowa history, and also the history of a certain fight that actually occurred, apparently, in Oregon. But that's another story, or a few more, maybe.

The letter that is copied below is one of those papers. It is from the Smithsonian National Museum, (International Exchanges, Bureau of American Ethnology, National Zoological Park, Astrophysical Observatory), specifically Charles Walcott, Secretary, though I can't make out Mr. Walcott's signature exactly, and may be wrong about the first name. It is dated April 11, 1903, though once again, the day has been altered and may not have been 11 originally. The letter is written to the Hon. Walter I. Smith, House of Representatives, Washington D.C. The letter is as follows:

My dear Mr. Smith:

Recalling your reference, during the meeting of the Committee of Appropriations some days since, to the meaning of the name Iowa, Mr. Holmes has taken up the matter with one of the specialists of the Bureau, and I now beg leave to submit his statement, which I trust you will find of interest as bearing on the origin of the name of your State, from the most authoritative source possible:

Some variation of this word was applied to the Iowa Indians by nearly all their neighbors, whether of Algonquian or Siouan affinity. The Santee Sioux call them Ayuhba, or Iyuhba*, which Rev. S. R. Riggs, for years a missionary among these people and one of our very best authorities regarding their language, translates "sleepy ones". This statement was first made in the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, containing Riggs' Dakota Grammar and Dictionary, published in 1852, Vol. IV, p. 378, and was repeated in his Dictionary published as Volume VII of the contributions to North American Ethnology in the Powell Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, p. 60, 1890. According to the unanimous testimony of history and tradition, the Iowa once lived in southern Minnesota, in immediate contact with the Sioux, and therefore this name might very well have originated with this latter people. The fact that it has a meaning in that language, while no interpretation has so far been obtained from any other, is evidence in the same direction.

This interpretation by Riuggs is not a mere guess, the term being readily analyzable. nba as nba-ya - "to make sleepy"; nba-ye-dan** (Teton Sioux, nba-ye-la), "softly, gently, mildly". yu- is a causative verbal prefix of very general signification and usage, often interpreted simple "to be". a- is an adverbial or prepositional prefix signifying properly "along with", but since it conveys the sense of "accompaniment" it frequently, as in this case, forms plurals. The i- of the form Iyunba would be another adverbial or prepositional prefix which sometimes signifies "with" and would therefore have an analogous force. That a- in the original prefix seems to be indicated, however, by the preponderance of early spellings containing it.

It now remains to be shown how "Ayuhba"* could pass into "Iowa", which is at first sight quite a distinct word. The disappearance of the b is readily accounted for by one familiar with the Dakota language. There the sound represented by b is not well developed, but hesitates between b, p, and w, is often heard as w by careless listeners, and is w (or nearer that sound than any other), in the Teton or western dialect of the Dakota or Sioux tongue. The sign h* stands for that represented by the German ch. This is wanting in French and English, the two languages through which the word has come to us, and it is well known that in similar situations it is apt to be dropped entirely when pronounced by persons whose languages do not contain it. We should thus have instead of Ayuhba or Ayuhwa, Ayuwa. Now the sound of a and y brounght together as ay is almost identical with English long I, which could easily be substituted for it, leaving us Iuwa. The substitution of o for u is, of course, simple, and it may be added that many Indian languages employ u and o in the same situation indifferently, while even in those which differentiate the two it is usually for the uninitiated to distinguish the two sounds.

In cases like this it is always difficult to be absolutely certain, but on circumstantial grounds the evidence is very strong. That the Iowa should be called "sleepy ones" by the Sioux, who were usually hostile to them, is quite likely, but for us it carried no more stigma than the term by which the Iowa tribe knew themselves. This was, as nearly as we can express it in English, Pahoche, or Pahutse, and without much doubt means "Dusty noses", although Major Stephen H. Long, owing to a confusion of similar sounds, rendered it "Gray snow". The use of this name is based on a tradition, and very likely the same was true of Ayuhba

Very truly yours,

Charles Walcott,

(my notes/TL)
*single dot over the h. there also appears an accent mark, upper right to lower left, over the u
**here, I see a carat under a raised n. also, the a appears, in both words, with an accent mark, again upper right to lower left, over it. I am referring to the a of hba

Saturday, April 10, 2010

East brain, west brain

Begley, S. (2010, Feb.) East brain, west brain: How different cultures shape the brain. Newsweek. Accessed 4-10.

I actually found this article in a magazine, while staying with my parents, and read it there. It's profound and disturbing at the same time. Profound because I've always claimed the power of culture and language to shape the brain; also, the power of what we do to determine how we organize (see post below). I can't, at the moment, remind you of what I've already written about it; it's not available. But language is best seen as a large traffic jam, in which people's perceptions of the world are dictated mostly by how they see it, namely, the bumpers immediately in front of them. We do watch, organize, become more efficient, etc.; we also lose sight of that which we don't see regularly. There's more to this than meets the eye; stay posted!

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more evidence

that texting is winning the battle. I have pointed out, in the past, that people use their cell phones more for texting than for calling. This trend has increased, though I have no statistics to bear it out. My present evidence is entirely anecdotal.

1. A friend of mine, in roughly the same generation, seen recently trying to text and walk at the same time, explaining that her children only text but that they needed to communicate nonetheless; I was jealous, in the sense that I still don't even know how to use my cell phone to text.

2. A relative, having unlimited texting on a plan, got a bill at the end of the month with 11,000 texts on it. An ordinary California teenager, not trying to set records or anything, just using what was available.

OK so these are entirely anecdotal. I'm beginning to lose touch with the media, but I can say this much: we should respond to this trend. By "we" I mean, primarily, linguists, academics, those who study human communication and culture. It's a profound change, and it will have many implications.

First, what people do and use is what establishes the records and patterns for the future. The business of life is being done by text. It is still English but with an entirely different way of spelling and appearance; it's an informal register. It may be seen as vile by some, but it's just a tool, like any other language. And it's winning.

Second, its patterns have a lot to teach us. How do people establish words? Where do the emoticons come from? How do we know what is accepted or in use nationwide or in many different environments? Lots is happening here, and I'm sure linguists and other academics are at least watching. But if nobody is documenting, a lot of information will be lost in the "formative years"...

Third, the shift over to writing throws a whole system into a different balance. The traditional relationship of writing to speaking will not continue to be the same; this has profound implications for the way we understand language and understand the oral language to be "first" is still first, in some ways; we especially in the older generation are more likely to consider language to be "something to help us talk to each other"....hopelessly outdated, maybe.

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