Date: Mon, 7 Nov 1994 12:42:52 -0800


Subject: Re: 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 ...

-- Moonhawk (%- )

"The fool on the hill sees the sun going down and

the eyes in his head see the world spinning round"

-- John Lennon