Date: Mon, 7 Nov 1994 12:42:52 -0800 From: Dan Alford 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 future. 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> <-- John Lennon>