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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