Date: Mon, 7 Nov 1994 12:56:14 -0800
From: Dan Alford dalford[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]S1.CSUHAYWARD.EDU
Subject: Algonquian et. al.
It is indeed fortunate for us on this list that Dr. Mufwene is on-line
to keep us honest by presenting alternative cultural views.
Have you surveyed these claims or are you just guessing? If I may
speak for some of those "people from other languages and
cultures," these interpretations never crossed my mind.
My lack of a quantifier was infelicitous here. Although I do indeed
have a background of work in Luganda and Igbo during my graduate
studies, my attention has turned over the past few decades to the
languages of Indigenous America, which is where these claims
come from. I have no idea what Dr. Mufwene's native language is,
but the lack of such interpretation in his mind is *possibly*
because that language had male/female distinctions built in --
and I'm not sure how that correlates with the interpretations by
those without such distinctions. The claim is that before the
Invasions, Algonquian languages in particular had no sex-based
distinctions in their languages -- no separate words for man and
woman, boy or girl. The only distinction made in this way had to do
with "pregnant" somethings vs regular ones.
Which is how we came up with one particular word in English -- in
the early contact days, a ship's captain was exploring with a
Mikmaq (Nova Scotia) and they saw a group of large quadrupeds. The
captain pointed and asked what it was called, to which the Mikmaq,
following the pointing to a particular one, that happened to be
pregnant, replied not "tiam", the usual word, but "tiam-musi"
meaning a pregnant-tiam. The captain didn't hear the first part too
well so called them all "moose", whether pregnant or not. The 'musi'
did not, in their language, point to femaleness, but merely the
containing of new life. According to Mikmaqs, this was the only
distinction normally made with animals or humans or anything. You
just don't need that "basic" male/female distinction when your
gender system is based on animacy instead of sexual
characteristics -- all you're paying attention to is the signs of
mystery and life.
And I must commend Dr. Mufwene for correctly seizing on my
rhetorical tricks. That is, I use such examples, including it-ting
Mother Earth to death, as a way of having people reflect on their
own grammatical categories in a non-habitual way and try to
understand from the inside what it would be like to be part of
another system, one that paid attention to animacy rather than
genitalia -- and what it means, in the larger picture, that we so
unthinkingly label animate beings with 'it' at the same time that we
are wreaking ecocide at every turn. I don't know if I can make this
into a coherent theory, but I can make people stop and think.
My French is many stacks down on the language server, so I was
taking my cue from Spanish and others re: neuter gender. Sorry.
I'll see if I can make my rhetorical tricks more invisible in the
Meanwhile, another Algonquian word makes the news. In a recent
Washington Post article on the efforts of a soman named Suzan Harjo
to get Jack Kent Cooke to change the name of the Redskins football
team (thanx to Linda Coleman), questions about the origins of words
like 'redskin' and 'squaw' came up. Harjo (and Sen. Ben Nighthorse
Campbell apparently) insists that 'squaw' has a very precise meaning
in Algonquian and Iroquoian languages -- 'vagina'. That she learned
this meaning from clan mothers. On the other hand, experts such as James
Axtell of William & Mary insist that it's simply a word for woman,
non-pejorative. Thus is the framing cast.
I talked to my friend Sakej about this, suspicious that the argument
was going on about nouns. He replied: In Mikmaq, there is still no
sex-gender distinction that shows up as a general word for 'woman'
-- it's all relationship! Do you mean 'mother', 'sister', what? There
does happen to be a word in Mikmaq which is also used in the
greeting, "Come in!" (something like *peskwa*, which is damn close
to the Proto-Algonquian form now that I look at it!) -- with the
same root "entering" (AHA!) as in the word 'squaw', so in that sense
Harjo is right that it has to do with sex (pejorative in English, to be
sure, but not in native languages) -- but it doesn't refer to a noun,
'vagina', rather to a motion-verb 'enter'. As to non-pejorative --
well, when you have 'mothering' 'sistering' and 'entering' to pick
from and you pick the last when referring to a woman, it kinda says
right there what your relationship with the woman is (of course with
lots more in the set as well -- friending, loving, etc.).
All for now ...
Oh, except: As a general rule, distrust any English noun that supposedly
points to or corresponds to a Native American term in noun form -- that is,
distrust the Native "noun" -- Native American languages in general, and
Algonquian specifically, do not make any distinction as we do between noun
and verb; they have pre-noun/pre-verb roots that express rhythms and
vibrations and relationships. I've not yet been able to pin my Algonquian
friends down to any noun; they say they can speak all day long and never
utter a single noun (or NP), and that this is the rule rather than the
exception. Even their words for 'God' are verbs, as I show in my current
2-hour Worldview Thought Exercise called 'God is not a Noun in Native
-- Moonhawk (%- )
"The fool on the hill sees the sun going down and
the eyes in his head see the world spinning round"
-- John Lennon