Monday, June 26, 2006

Drinking Tobacco

In the last couple of days I’ve discovered the Biloxi used to say

yani(ksoni) įni
tobacco(pipe) drink

While at first the idea of "drinking" tobacco seemed odd, I’ve since discovered that it is not so unusual. I’m told that "drink" for smoke also occurs in Crow (another Siouan language), some eastern Algonquian languages, and even Japanese:

tabako wo nomu
tobacco OBJ drink

Anyone know of other languages that have this idea of "drinking" for smoking?

Update: It appears I can add Hindi and Egyptian Arabic to the above. Thanks for your feedback!

Friday, June 23, 2006

Hawaiian Proverb

Thought I'd end the week with a Hawaiian proverb:

I ka ‘ōlelo nō ke ola, i ka ‘ōlelo nō ka make.
In words is life, in words is death.

In ancient Hawai'i, a kahuna 'ana'ana could pray someone to death or counter another's death prayer. The proverb is a reminder that words can either heal or destroy people, so we'd better be careful with our words.

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!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Making A Dictionary

For about the past year and a half, I’ve been revising a dictionary of the Biloxi language. The only dictionary ever published on this language is from 1912, and it is not very user-friendly. In fact, it’s downright frustrating! This dictionary is composed of and organized mostly by monosyllabic or disyallabic so called "roots," many of which are not roots at all. Thus if one merely looks at the dictionary "root" entry, s/he will get only part of the word, and, in order to get the whole word, one must look through a myriad of subentries using the supposed root. What’s worse, words are often found in the subentries of a "root" heading that don’t even belong under that particular heading.

My answer to this lexicographic nightmare is the revision of this dictionary, which contains most of the data extant on this now unfortunately extinct Siouan language. This is my first attempt at lexicography, although hopefully not my last since I’m also currently developing a wordlist for Rumsen Ohlone as I work on the John P. Harrington notes from that language.

In revising the Biloxi dictionary, I’m discovering some of the challenges inherent in working on Amerindian languages. Perhaps the greatest challenge is in knowing just how to classify many words, since the traditional Indo-European concepts of grammar and word classification (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc.) usually don’t hold true for many of the languages of Native America. The Siouan languages, including Biloxi, have the classes of words we know as nouns and verbs, but they do not have adjectives. What normally serve as adjectives in Biloxi are actually verbal in nature. For example,

Masada thohi na.

dish blue DECL-M

The dish is blue. (Male speaking.)

Biloxi has no equivalent of the verb ‘to be,’ so that "dish blue" serves as an entire sentence. (The na in this example is the male "oral period" signaling the end of a declarative sentence. Such a declarative sentence-final marker is compulsory in some Siouan languages but it’s optional in Biloxi and could be left out. The female declarative marker is ni.) So, the question arises, what is thohi really, an adjective or a verb? Since one could also say, if one were covered with blue dye, ąthohi, where ą- is the first person singular prefix, "I am blue," it’s easy to see that thohi could also be a verb. Perhaps the literal translations of these sentences into English would be: "The dish blues" or "the dish is bluing" and "I blue" or "I am bluing."

Affixes are another tricky problem in Siouan, as well as in most other agglutinative Amerindian languages, for lexicographers. For instance, there is the Biloxi xehe, ‘to sit,’ and axehe, ‘to sit on something.’ Should axehe and xehe be considered separate words or should axehe, incorporating the Siouan a- locative prefix (in or at a place), be considered a mere variant of xehe? (Siouan languages do not have an infinitive verbal form, by the way, so the third person singular form of verbs, which is the only form without affixation, is considered the base form of a verb and is the generic form of a verb found in dictionary headings.)

My solution so far to the first issue is to classify words according to their traditional role in Indo-European grammar. If the Biloxis decide to revitalize their language, they are already English speakers and will probably feel more comfortable seeing words classified according to the grammar of their first language, English, at least until they gain more fluency in Biloxi.

My solution so far for the second issue is to place these verbal variants under their own respective headings, so that someone can find axehe under the letter a as well as find xehe under the letter x. But I’m also cross-referencing these "base" forms without affixes to the variants with affixes that can be found in other parts of the dictionary. Thus, if one looks up xehe, ‘to sit,’ s/he will also find the notation: "see axehe." Likewise for xehe under the axehe ‘to sit on something’ entry.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

There’s A Place Called Aztalan

There’s a place, in Wisconsin (about 25 miles east of Madison on the Crawfish River), called
Aztalan. It got its name from a German geographer, Baron Von Humboldt, who, because of its apparent similarity to cities of the Aztec Empire, mistakenly thought it was a northern settlement of this tribe. Aztalan contains the remains of a village with pyramid mounds similar to those of Cahokia in what is now East St. Louis. It was believed to have been settled between 1100-1300 AD, was about 21 acres in size, and was believed to have had a population of about 500. It was surrounded by a fence and sentry towers enclosing the houses, pyramids, and cornfields.

Adding to the area’s intrigue is Rock Lake, about 3 miles from Aztalan, in which up to ten pyramidal and other stone structures are said to be submerged. One of these structures, called the Limnatis Pyramid, is said to have a base width of 60 feet, a length of about 100 feet, and a height of 18 feet, built mostly of round, black stones. It is believed these structures may have been buried underwater about 3,000 years ago when a deluge flooded the area.

It's intriguing to think how much of our continent's pre-Columbian history is still buried or submerged awaiting excavation.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Language Myth #1:
Hawaiian has no word for snow

False. Hawaiian does indeed have a word for snow, and ice. The word is hau. Granted such cold weather words are never needed in most of Hawai’i, but the ancient Hawaiians were certainly aware of the white stuff on the Big Island of Hawai’i where Mauna Kea is covered with it each year. (In fact, Mauna Kea means "white mountain" and was so named by the Hawaiians for its winter coat.) When snow covers the mountain, the Hawaiians say

Ua kau ka hau
PF rest DEF snow
Snow is resting [on it]

If the Hawaiians want to specifically distinguish snow from ice, they use hau kea, white hau. To distinguish frost from snow, they can use the word hau’oki, cut snow or ice. The term poke hau (sliced hau) is used for ice cubes.

A poetic term for ice is used in some stories:

Wai pū’olo i ka lau lā’au
Water wrap in DEF leaf tree
Water wrapped in the leaves of trees

since ice was carried from Mauna Kea down to the lowlands in ancient times.

The Māori of New Zealand also have much experience with snow. Their word is huka, which is cognate with the Hawaiian hu’a (an example of the Hawaiian habit of turning Polynesian k into a glottal stop), meaning froth or foam (of a beach).

From Pila Wilson, University of Hawai'i.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Linguist vs. Polyglot

These two terms are often confused. There is technically a difference between a linguist and a polyglot, and a person can be one without the other. Let me explain. A linguist is technically someone who specializes in the science of linguistics, which, as Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines it, is "the study of human speech including the units, nature, structure, and modification of language." Many linguists are not polyglots, and many polyglots are not linguists. A linguist can be monolingual, speaking perhaps only English, but can research and analyze different languages without truly learning to speak them. A polyglot (from Greek poly, many + glotta, language) is someone who speaks several languages. I am a polyglot who also happens to be a linguist. I began learning to speak various languages as a teenager. I have only recently, however, in the last six years, become a linguist in the scientific sense of the word where I am actually documenting and analyzing the inner workings of languages and the similarities and differences between them.