Thursday, June 22, 2006

Ruminations on Rumsen

I’ve been working a lot on Rumsen this week, which is a language of one of the Ohlone (aka Costanoan) Amerindian tribes. Rumsen and other Ohlone languages have been incorporated among the proposed Penutian family of languages. The Rumsens inhabited the area around Monterey and Carmel. Unfortunately, like Biloxi, Rumsen is also extinct, the last native speaker, Isabel Meadows, having died in 1939. In fact, all of the Ohlone languages are extinct, although Mutsun (formerly spoken around San Juan Bautista) and Chochenyo (aka Muwekma, once spoken in the East Bay Area) have started revitalization programs.

Through the UC Davis Harrington Project, I’m working from copies of the Rumsen notes taken by John Harrington in the 1920s and 1930s as he interviewed Isabel on her language and culture. He took down copious notes on just about everything she said, in some cases regarding some very personal matters irrelevant to language and culture.

Luckily I was able to order, from UMI, a grammar dissertation on Mutsun, Rumsen’s close linguistic cousin to the east, by Marc Okrand, who was made somewhat famous by his invention of the Klingon language for Star Trek. (Okrand's ideas for the phonetics and grammar of Klingon were influenced heavily by his work on Mutsun Ohlone and other Amerindian languages.) So far this dissertation has been invaluable in helping me to discern some of the Rumsen vocabulary and grammar.

Rumsen is an interesting language. It has somewhat of a more Indo-European type of grammatical structure than other Amerindian languages I’ve studied. Rumsen has what could be called, and have been called, case endings such as a locative ta or tak suffix, as in kaawtak, 'at or on the beach.' There is another suffix som or om which, though described in Okrand’s Mutsun grammar as an instrumental, seems to serve as more of an all-encompassing oblique case marker, as in

ka ritči Rumsenom
1stSG speak Rumsen-OBL
I speak Rumsen

which is reminiscent of Russian’s я говорю по-русски (“I speak by means of Russian”). Interestingly, Rumsen seems to have lost the –s or –es accusative ending on nouns, which Mutsun maintained. A remnant of the Rumsen accusative occurs only on pronouns.

Several people at the rancho in Carmel Valley where Isabel was from used many Esselen words in their speech, including Isabel herself. The Esselen were the Rumsen's neighbors to the south who lived around Big Sur. Esselen, also now extinct, is thought to be either a language isolate or a member of the Hokan family (which includes Chumash) depending on whom you talk to. Thus, at times there are two words, one Esselen and one Ohlone, that can be used for the same object, such as koltala (Esselen) and 'orres (Rumsen), both meaning 'bear.'

Here are a couple more sample sentences:

Ka ‘uun ka ‘amxayin.
1stSG save 1stSG-POSS food
I’m saving my food.

(Notice the first person singular [I] and first person singular possessive [my] pronouns are the same.)

Misix nee sa kaaw.
good here DEF beach
This beach is nice.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more on this interesting language later!

No comments: