Doing fieldwork in Pima

A report I did for a linguistics class a few years ago. (I have a degree in Linguistics with a specialty in Native American languages.)

I had known Rod for over twenty years by the time this took place, and attend the sweats he pours, but talking about his language opened up whole new doors with him. This does not really convey what the conversations sounded like, especially with his strong Pima accent.


Pima is a language of the Uto-Aztecan family spoken on both sides of the Arizona/Mexico border. It is mutually intelligible with Papago. The Pima call themselves Akimel Oodth’am, or River People; the Papago Tohono Oodtham, or Desert People. The name Pima evidently comes from the phrase pi mach, I don’t know, or I don’t understand, which was recorded by the Spaniards as their name, probably because it was what the Pimas responded when asked an unintelligible question (What are your people called) by these strange people.

Pima is a dying language. I did fieldwork with Rod McAfee, one of the last fluent speakers of the Pima language. He is 72 years old and says that he noticed when he was 12 that the children of 6 and under were speaking English rather than Pima. In spite of decades off the reservation, with very little opportunity to speak Pima with other speakers, he has maintained his fluency in Pima. He pours sweats and conducts other ceremonies always praying in his language. He maintains that he must keep his language in order to think in the natural way and keep his identity. He feels that the younger generations of Indians who are losing their language are also losing their true understanding of who they are.

The Interviews

To starting from scratch with completely unfamiliar language was a new experience. It was very different from my documentation work with Napo Quichua. There, I already had a knowledge of the fundamentals gained from books, and had mainly to note what was unique about the Napo dialect as I wrote down texts that were dictated to me. Also, my Quichua speaking friends in Ecuador are familiar with at least the idea of writing their language, and written Quichua is becoming increasingly present in the environment. Quichua is phonetically easy, containing no sounds that are not shared by either Spanish or English, which makes it easy to write. If a Quichua speaker can read Spanish, they can sound out written Quichua phrases and write them as well.

But with Rod, on the other hand, I had the challenge of starting from the beginning, with a language that was phonetically more complex (as I knew it would be; I had heard Rod speak Pima many times, as he uses his language to pray in ceremonies). I had no grammar resources, but his wife (a non-Pima) loaned me a Pima dictionary which she had.

Here is how the first interview went:

I decide to see how Rod pronounces the words so that I can learn how to use the dictionary’s orthography. I glance through the dictionary and find, on the last page, the word “young,” which is rendered as “wechig.” I decide to start with that. After all, “young” must be a common word.

G: Wechig. Wechig. Do you know that word?

Rod looks blank.

G: What is the word for “young”?

R: Young. Vutsus.

I begin to suspect that this dictionary and its orthography might not prove very useful, if wechig versus vutsus was an example of how far apart the dictionary and Rod’s pronunciation were. That would indeed prove to be the case.

R: Vutsus – means new, too. New or young. Vutsus ahidak. The new year, the young year.

Aha, a whole phrase! And I have some grammatical data already – modifiers precede nouns!

G: So how do you say “Happy new year”?

R: We don’t say that. We would talk about – if people were talking, they would be sitting together, they would be looking at the same things. We talk about things that are real. They would talk about how beautiful it was, the animals, the earth, the sky – jiwit hyoosik. The earth is blooming.

G: You mean the earth is covered with flowers?

R: No… the earth blooming. Like you could say, U’ufha hyoosik. The girls like you.

I puzzle over that for a moment.

R: U’ufha hyoosik – you make the girls bloom.
– And a man might say Dan hyoosik. We bloom together.

G: Is that how you’d say you’re in love?

Rod thinks for a moment and assents.

G: So can you say “You make the boys bloom”? The boys like you?

R: (after thinking) Chich’och hyoosik.

A pattern! Subject/verb. A successful pattern substitution. Maybe I should get some basic phrases.

G: How do you say hello?

R: Shap kaech. That’s like … it’s hard to translate, it depends on the situation. Depends on your tone of voice. If you say it (demonstrating one tone of voice) it means “hello,” if you say it (demonstrating another tone of voice) it means “what are you doing,” if you say it (another tone of voice) it means “do you have any problems.” How are you going to write these things down? Everything depends on your tone of voice. And the situation. It can be kind of demanding, like you didn’t understand? “What did you say?” Or you might have heard a conversation and you want to know what they were talking about, and say shap up kaech. Or shap kaech is a greeting, to get attention. If you walk up to a bunch of fellows talking and just want them to know about your presence, you would say sham kaech. That’s for plural.

G: How do you answer if someone says shap kaech?

R: That depends on the situation. You can reply Shap kaech. Or you could say Ben ya shap kaech. That could mean nothing has bothered you. Or if you say it this way (he says Ben ya shap kaech with a different tone of voice) it could mean you’re not doing anything. You could al pik, how about you. Then again, it’s the tone of voice you use. That’s why you use it to get attention. Shap kaech, and you might respond en~a shap kaech. You really have to express talk with feelings. So many different tones. The simple words have a lot of meaning.

G: How do you say “thank you”?

R: Well, we don’t have a word for “thank you.” If we want to say “thank you” for a gift, we would hold it and talk for a long time about how beautiful it is and how important it is. Not just a word like “thank you” which you don’t have to think about much to say.

It hits me that that is what he is doing when he is blessing the spirit plate at the potlucks we have after sweat lodge and other occasions.

G: How do I tell Maakai he’s a good dog? I know dog is goks.

R: (thinks) Just by your tone of voice. Everything is tone of voice in our language.

Everything is context, everything is tone of voice. I feel myself entering a sense of the oral culture, a culture where everything is immediate.

The second session, I come prepared. Nariyo [my professor] has loaned me a Pima dictionary (same as the one Rod’s wife already had) and a Papago grammar. Papago is supposed to very nearly the same language as Pima, just a dialect difference. They are two peoples distinguished by different ways of life, the Tohono Oodham and the Akimel Oodham, Desert People and River People, but they speak the same language.

Well, I think, this should make things easier. So, in preparation for the next session, I spend some hours on the computer making lists of patterned sentences from the book. The dog is running, the horse is eating, the person is speaking. I know that Rod’s pronunciation will be different. But I figure this is a start, and that by going over the sentences with him, I can correct the pronunciation, and then with this grammar we have a running start with the language.

So I come to the session armed with a page of nice patterned sentences from the book.

G: How is this (pronouncing from my page): “Goks 'o hiink.”

Rod looks blank. I repeat it several times to no avail.

G: It’s supposed to be “The dog is barking.” That’s what I’m trying to say. How do you say “The dog is barking”?

R: Why would you say “The dog is barking”? If you are talking to each other, you can both see the dog is barking.

G: Okay, what if you talk about a dog that’s barking that you can’t see?

R: Well, it all depends on the situation. It depends on why you’re talking about the dog.

I go on to “This person is speaking.” It is rendered in the book as “'I:da 'o’odham 'o n~eok.” Again, my attempts at pronunciation make no sense to him.

G: I’m trying to say “This person is speaking.” – Okay, how would you say in Pima, “This person is speaking?”

R: What person is speaking?

G: Um… any person.

R: What is the situation? Are you trying to call someone’s attention to the person speaking? Why are you saying the person is speaking?

G: Um… okay. Suppose someone is making noise and you want them to be quiet so you can hear the person speaking.

R: But they wouldn’t be making noise if someone is speaking. They would be respectful.

G: What if there are kids playing and making noise and you want them to be quiet?

Rod shouts a single syllable that sounds like “hush!”

The testing of sentence patterns from the book is not working. Rod is obviously not comfortable with sentences taken out of context as abstract statements. More important, asking questions, lots of questions, of an elder is not the Indian way. I feel pulled between the linguist way, trying to determine morphosyntax in a systematized fashion, and the Indian way, which would be to simply listen to whatever an elder feels guided to share.

Even though I am going to a “white man’s school,” the Indian way is the truer way for me and I don’t feel right trying to impose this other way of doing things on an elder. You don’t come to an elder with a book and then try to make the elder fit a book. You listen to the elder.

So I fall silent.

Rod is silent too. Then he says a sentence in Pima.

G: What?

Rod repeats it, and then says, “They say the Coyote will always get even.”

He repeats the sentence phrase by phrase, and I write it down: Humopaak mashuk ban sham va’et E agua. I repeat it and he corrects my pronunciation. He tells me an entire story, repeating phrases patiently as I write them down, even though normally one would not ask an elder to repeat things, he is willing to repeat and repeat for me until I get the phrases written and then can pronounce them to his satisfaction.

[i]Humopaak mashuk ban sham va’et E agua.

Mashuma huk’ oodth’am upa wi bich huk baaban hah kii.

Gush am hEjE haijuk.

Gohk ban mamakt’.

Piya’ach huk hajuich.

Shukt sham’up a U’Uk iidam kamuhi uupam.

Huk i chuhuguch sham jivia huk a jE’a.

Mo’oks nopyo tonyepk’ chap chimo jipgut goks sho juvidok.

Shapha mo’osh vo’iwa huk i ban ha taicha gu mamat’uk.

Masham me maase shum aagige vumkikem ya thuma chiliak chuguk.

Nju nopi “atu ha tacho gu mamakt’.”[/i]

After each sentence, he says, “You can’t really say it in English… well, I guess it’s something like…”

The story basically tells of a man who finds two coyote kits and takes them home. The mother coyote comes to his house each evening. His wife says, “Of course, she is looking for her babies.” Finally, the mother coyote takes one of the man’s children. The wife tells him he had better return the coyote babies. The man says it is too late (meaning he has killed them). And that is why they say the Coyote will always get even.

(the software says my post is too long, so continued on next post…)

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(continued from previous post)

After telling the story, Rod falls silent for a while, and then says that people of today would not understand the deeper meanings of this story. People used to live with the animals, and they understood the lessons that the animals had for the humans. This story has many meanings that people of before would understand, that did not need to be explained to them in words, but can’t be explained to people who no longer live the “natural life.”

But, although I can’t analyze the sentences word for word, I am getting a lot of useful data about the phonological systems. It turns out to be surprisingly easy to figure out phonemic boundaries. (In the above transcription, due to font limitations, I am using upper-case E to represent the sound that is represented in German by oe and in French by eu, and upper-case U to represent tense U like the oo in pool, instead of the lax u in pull.) It turns out to be surprisingly easy to discover phonemic boundaries, through the boundaries of Rod’s tolerance of my pronunciation.

My brain is split into two halves. Part of my mind is with my heart, listening with my heart to the underlying message of an elder who grew up in the natural way, listening to the winter stories in the middle of the land in which the stories are rooted. Part of my mind is doing linguistics, thinking about data.

His dialect of Pima is clearly phonologically distinct from what is in the dictionary. The dictionary has a five vowel system, each phonemically lengthened. Rod’s dialect of Pima has eight vowel phonemes. Besides that, unlike the dictionary, his dialect has glottalized sounds. including one unique sound that I have never encountered in any language before: a glottalized voiceless “th.”

The next session, we get no language data. Rod talks only about how much has been lost. How people will never understand what this language really means because they no longer live the life. People used to share and take care of each other. Now they live by money, they look to money to take care of them, and they hoard money rather than sharing. They are getting educated now and losing touch with the natural way. Education makes people think about things that are not real and lose touch with the things that are real. They don’t respect air and water. They don’t know how to communicate with the animals. They would not understand the real meanings of the stories. There is no point to trying to save some little bit of the language…

The pain is coming up, pain to which, I know, he has rarely given a voice. I just listen and take some notes.

“People in English learn things out of books. They talk about things that are not real. That is why it is so easy to deceive in English…”

“I feel like part of the reason it was so hard to learn English was because it is really nothing, it’s kind of a dead language, so to speak…”

“It’s kind of scary because one time I caught myself thinking in English, and that’s dangerous. I have to think in Pima. Getting assimilated is what it amounts to…”

“If you dream you are talking to the spirits in your own language, then it’s real. It’s not superficial, so to speak. I guess that would the subconscious, or the deeper conscious awareness, so to speak…”

“So just the little simple words, they seem like nothing, which is what it would be to the modern Indians who are educated. It’s nothing, because they don’t have the connection to the language, to the land, to nature…”

The pain of all the loss he has witnessed in his life is coming to the surface. He is at kind of a turning point, I know, a point of deciding whether to continue with the language work, deciding whether it is worth it.

I talk about that with his wife afterward. She says that the reason that the Cherokee tribe enrolls people who can prove any Cherokee lineage at all is because they feel that with even one drop of Cherokee blood the ancestors can speak to you, and she says she will point out to Rod the same thing with the language – if even one word of Pima is preserved for the future generations, the spirits can use it to speak to those generations. It is worth it, she feels.

The next session, he is ready.

Shumukidth’…” he says, and pauses for me to write it down. “All the time…
o’ it a vu u mach’.”

My ear for Pima is improving, and instead of asking him to repeat various times before I write, now I can write something down the first time he says it. Not really correctly, but something. Then I repeat it, and he corrects it. I can tell that he appreciates the fact that I am listening better and better and can repeat something he says, even if not quite correctly, the first time I hear it."

Shumukidth’ o’ it a vu u mach’…” I repeat as he corrects my pronunciation. I write it down.

After a pause, he translates it. “All the time we have help and guidance.” Another pause. “O’ ima vu u mach’… All the time I am helped… That doesn’t only mean I am getting help. It could also mean ‘they are with me.’”

In this case, I am able to match the word I have written "shumukidth’ " with something in the dictionary: “always” is rendered “chum hekith” and translates literally as “unexpectedly sometime.” Word division is a problem, especially since, as I have discovered from the Papago grammar and the Pima dictionary, some particles are not even full syllables but single consonants that fuse onto another word. But, on the other hand, all words are stressed on the first syllable, a big help, since every stressed syllable marks a word division.

O nan ko maals dodakem. All kinds of living beings.”

Prayer phrases. I write them down and repeat them.

“This is the language of the ears. It’s not written down. It’s the way it was at the beginning… You are always in the present.”

“It’s part of the Earth language, so you’re always in the present, and it is very seldom you’re talking about the past. Like the stories, they are always told in the present. Even if it’s a legend, it is always to the present that you refer. ‘This is why things are done this way…’”

The Sapir/Whorf hypothesis, which broadly says that language shapes the way that we perceive the world, was based on Edward Sapir’s studies of Hopi, in which verbs are marked for aspect but do not have tense. Sapir hypothesized that this affected the way the Hopis perceive time. Pima is related to Hopi and, like Hopi, has obligatory aspect and modals, but no tense, or at least no past tense. I know that Rod would agree strongly with the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis. He himself perceives how English creates a different relationship to time than his native language does, and the significance of the fact that there is no past tense in his language, therefore any event that is related is happening in the present, happening as the speaker relates them. The lessons of the stories, that is why things are done this way, are immediately relevant to the present moment because they are experienced as “happening” in the present moment.

“There’s a silver dollar with an eagle holding arrows – the picture and the legend goes far back. The legend – the people were trying to kill the eagle so that’s why he was grabbing the arrows. That’s why, they say, they have a picture of this on the white man’s money. But that was a long time ago, when everyone was in harmony and talked to the plants and animals…”

Haa ki th’ki… haakitth’u … yesterday, a while back… anda wulsh – I tied – en shoigam, my horse, kwe wuvwe tak ap, upon a young mesquite tree. Di upum jilia – I came back – itse kipe vuulo – and he was gone. (Got untied.) Inya ma ho maava jE kitk’ ki’oy – then I started tracking the horse – e da siyos kwe – a lot of mesquite – chim sha’i kE – a lot of brush. Ant’ puwe piosh o’oi muchu – I might not have found him for days. Ti hoo he – Dove helped me. You know the mourning dove, how he calls?”

I said yes, and imitated a mourning dove call.

Ma ha vanya vuumth’a. ‘Yoho kuuk. Yoho kuuk.’ He’s standing over here. He’s standing over here. ‘Shishich kikim. Shishich kikim.’ Get on and go. Get on and go.”

I collect various phrases more. Tuvupu munye means see you later. Heart is iibdak, spirit is shuushkut’, knowledge is cha’amchut. Ba’ak is eagle, a’an is feather, and viits is down, as in soft feathers. Hodouch viits means evening down, the soft feathers of the falling night. It is a personal name, Evening Down. Wupga is lightning up in the sky, wiiho is lightning striking the ground. inyUe inyUe – see see, look look, like when something’s about to disappear.

Nyapa ma nyuit’e? Do you see it?


Thanks a million for this, Gayle.

What a perfect illustration of all the issues around rewilding language. To an average member of modern culture, Rod seems like a stubborn nitpicker who won’t just translate Pima into English; to Rod, he can’t imagine why we make so little sense, ask how to say things his people would never say because it carries no useful meaning. Heir to a philosophical and logical system tuned to the landscape, he can’t disengage from it without feeling it painfully in his gut, I suspect.

Whew. I thought Rod’s language (Tohono O’odham) had the most speakers of any native language in North America; do you really think it lies in such danger of disappearing?

Tohono O’odham, or Papago, which is mutually intelligible with Pima although not identical with it, is in somewhat better shape than Akimel O’odtham, or Pima, which is Rod’s language. Rod says that there are almost no speakers of the language on his reservation who are younger than six years or so younger than him (since he was born in 1931, that means almost no speakers born later than 1937) and he says that it is the same on the other Pima reservations. Although the boarding schools had also been trying to exterminate the language for decades, Rod connects the cutoff point with the building of a dam on the Gila River that dried up the river that runs through the Pima reservations (Tucson had to water its golf courses somehow) and that meant the end of the Akimel O’odtham way of life, and that people were forced to start depending on money to survive, and wanted to learn the language that would help them do that. That didn’t happen to the Tohono O’odham, who also have the advantage of being farther from cities and more isolated.

BTW, did you come to the Natural Way presentation of Tohono O’odham linguist Ophelia Zepeda? She was the author of the Papago grammar I mentioned.

I sure did. I still sell her CDs of Akimel poetry at the merchandise table, though I’ve never bought one…

As far as the “no speakers born later than 1937”, that just boggles my mind. I want to punch a wall.

Thanks for sharing that whole story. It took me somewhere else for a while, and said some things I felt really hungry to hear so clearly, like about education and speaking english forcing you to think about abstract things (happy new year!!!) and forget real things, and think real things that matter don’t–turning everything upside down–and generally viewing all experience through the magnifying glass of true or false? fact or fiction?! while obscuring the barrage of lies we walk on every day to get from here to there.

The dog barking bit reminded me of reading in Jan Yoor’s book, the Gypsies, how they never talk about the weather–why? It makes itself so apparent in their lives–too obvious to need words. What makes up our favorite topic for small talk in english–and the first thing we learn when we take a foreign language class? Esta lloviendo! Il fait chaud!

Another stolen river. Hurts to hear. :’(

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Actually, ai believe Diné bizaad (navajo) has that honor. Or at least, in the US.
Incedentally, how did you make notation of the intonation? And what did the indevidual words in the greeting mean (shap kaech)?

Really great to read this. Thanks

Ahéhee’ for writing and sharing this. Being of half Diné and Akimel Oodth’am descent, this was particularly interesting and reminded me of the visits I had with my grandparents. I appreciate you sharing your time and conversation with our Elder, and writing our language for future preservation.

ps. What was Rod’s original last name? McAfee doesn’t sound like a Pima name. Being 72, I find this interesting to have such a last name.

Incedentally, how did you make notation of the intonation?

Looking at the article, it seems to have been heavily edited by the mods. The explanations of the writing system I used and other linguistic notes are gone.

And what did the indevidual words in the greeting mean (shap kaech)?

Rod didn’t answer questions like that.

Hi, bearpaw. McAfee was a name given to his family by a Presbyterian missionary. He’s 84 now, by the way. You can see a photograph of him (taken at the time the interviews were done) along with an unedited version of the article here:

S-apo! Good piece. Regarding miligan ñeok changing perception of time––makes me think of the great influence it’s had on the interworkings of the western world and the destruction it’s had on the earth as a result.
He expresses that we seldom talk about things in the past. I’ve heard from other elders because it’s not so relevant or practical. This is also reflective of when a person passed over we don’t speak about them or say their name for about a year, then after that we rarely bring them up. Today most ppl think it was some sort of protocol of grieving but some elders will say it is because we’ll disturb their journey. Others say it’s because they’re no longer here doing things so why is there a need to talk about them?
That also reminds of a priest who went to Brazil in attempts to convert native people to Christians, they listened to his words until they got curious and asked him if he knows Jesus. He replied no of course and that he died thousands of years ago, they all laughed at how ridiculouse it is to talk about someone whom he never met before and even died long before the priest was alive. I think that’s reflective of the differences in perception of time framed by the language.
Great piece I enjoyed it!

This was very insightful on the Pima language. I would love if you made a small pdf/ booklet of your findings like grammar rules, vocabulary and explanations. Even if you were to sell one I would buy it. Languages are a blessing and none deserve to be forgotten.

I was amazed and grateful I found your article. I’m a quarter Pima and have been so frustrated trying to learn even basics. I want so badly to know and understand. It’s a blight on my soul (and humanity) that the language will die. Out of everything lost… For me this is the hardest to bear

Jeannie, if you yet have children, have them taught this language, they will learn it better than what you can yet learn of it. This loss of languages in this world which is really happening is a loss of being able to understand other peoples who spoke those languages, and their relation to others. We lose ways of understanding this world better with that loss, too.

I am actually a teacher. I’ve got 30 small kids who I can teach. But again, my skills are lacking. I need help with phonetically pronouncing words. I know you said inflection is so important but I have to start some where…
Any ideas?

I wish I could help as you asked. It isn’t a language in my background. I have nothing for that. I imagine there are sources for finding information on the use of this language, or others, with online searching. If the poster here did make effort to print words and their meanings in the Pima language in a format such as a booklet that is to be used, being a useful source. Perhaps that poster can be contacted. I am hoping, with your pursuit involved with that, the language is continued still and doesn’t just die out. European colonial cultural expansion is responsible for great loss including this if it would be lost.