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.
DOING FIELDWORK IN PIMA
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.
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.
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…)