Friday, August 30, 2013

R and L in Mohawk

Q: How do you pronounce the Mohawk word Aweri (sweetheart)? I found conflicting pronunciations online. Is the "r" pronounced like an r, or like an l?

A: It depends on the dialect. In Akwesasne (and among some Six Nations speakers), it's pronounced like English "l." In other dialects, it's pronounced more like the "r" of Spanish.

Are you sure "aweri" can mean "sweetheart," though? Neither of our Mohawk speakers has ever heard it used that way. It literally means "its heart."

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Mohawk language
Mohawk words
Iroquois tribes

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dakota Wicohan

One of the many great Native organizations working on preserving a particular Native American language is Dakota Wicohan, a Minnesota nonprofit organization working on revitalizing the Dakota Sioux language. Dakota is less endangered than many Native American languages, with around 25,000 speakers (if the Lakota dialect is included), but most of the Dakota-speaking communities are located in the Dakotas and Canada. Few Dakota speakers remain in Minnesota (only five fully fluent speakers now, according to the organization.)

To address this problem, Dakota Wicohan is involved with a number of language preservation projects ranging from video recordings of fluent speakers to elder-apprentice and language-nest programs. We're hoping to be able to support their work through one of our Language Preservation Grants next spring, but you can help them directly at this donation page. Every little bit helps!

Pidamaya ye,
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Dakota language
Tribes of Minnesota
Language revitalization

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Q: My family is of French Canadian descent. There is a family tradition/lullaby of singing "Manush, Manush" while caressing a child's face followed by "tat-tat-tat" and lightly tapping the child's forehead.  I  believe we have Huron, Algonquin, & Abenaki  ancestors. I was wondering if this might be where this lullaby came from.

A: There's no word quite like "manush" in any of the languages you mention, but if it could have gotten corrupted somewhat, noozhis does mean "grandchild" in Ojibwe and Algonquin, and sounds a little like "noosh," so if that could have gotten mixed up with the French word for "my," perhaps?

"Manouche" is also a French word for Roma ("gypsy,") and it's not a derogatory one-- it comes from the Romani language itself. So maybe it's a Roma song that got borrowed at some point.

Hope that is helpful, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

ETA: A Francophone friend has solved this riddle. "Faire minouche" is regional French slang for petting or caressing; it is used in both baby talk and lovey-dovey talk. "Manush" or "manoosh" must be corruptions of "minouche." It does not come from a First Nations language, nor from Romani-- it is derived from the French word for "kitten," minou. (The Cree word noted in the comments is borrowed from French, not the other way around. Housecats aren't native to the Americas.)

Hope that helps!

Further reading:
Algonquin language
Native American words
Cree language

Monday, August 19, 2013

Shaw Wa Ne Quay

Q: My great-great-grandmother was Native American and her Algonquin name was Shaw Wa Ne Quay. Can you tell me what her name meant?

A: This was probably a corruption of the Algonquin name Jàwanikwe (pronounced similar to zhah-wuh-nih-kway; the Algonquin "j" is similar to the French "J" in Jacques.) The same name is Zhaawanikwe in the closely related Ojibwe language.

If so, the meaning of this name has variously been given as "bluebird woman," "south wind woman," or "southern woman." Zhaawan/Jàwan literally means "south" in the Algonquin and Ojibwe languages, but in Algonquin and Eastern Ojibwe, it is also the word for a bluebird, and sometimes it is also used to refer to the south wind. The specific meaning probably depended on the community your ancestor lived in.

Hope that is helpful, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Ojibwe language
Native American names
Native American bluebird meaning

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Name Seneca

Q: My last name is Seneca, and I hope this site and the people behind it can answer a question for me.  Does the tribe, Seneca, have any connection to Seneca the old who was born in Spain and later on was forced to commit suicide by Nero?

A: Only in a roundabout way.  :-)  The tribal name Seneca probably came from a Native place name, Osininka. English speakers corrupted that to "Seneca," undoubtedly influenced by the name of the Roman philosopher/statesman they would have already have been familiar with from school. It was pretty common for indigenous names to get corrupted into different names the English speakers found easier to pronounce.

As for the Seneca people, their own name for themselves in their language is not Seneca (or Osininka) at all, but Onödowága (also spelled Onondowaga, Onandowaga, Onötowáka, Onundawagona, and any number of other ways.)

Hope that is interesting to you, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Seneca language
Native American names
Native American tribes

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Native American Slavery

Q: Is it true that there was no slavery among Native American tribes?

A: No, that is not true. Slavery was rare in the Americas, but Northwest Coast tribes like the Haida and Tlingit and some South American cultures practiced slavery. Here's a book about slavery in the Northwestern tribes: Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America.The Haida word for a slave is xaldaang, and the Tlingit word is gux. None of these tribes practice slavery today.

It is true that many colonial stories about slavery in North America were inaccurate. The Native Americans described as slaves by the colonists were actually adopted captives. When a Native American war party brought living prisoners back to their village, they were often adopted by families in the village. But they did not become slaves-- they were considered full members of the tribe, and had the same social status as the family that adopted them. There are many stories of captives who became a chief or medicine person of their new tribe, or married one of the chief's children.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Northwest Coast culture area
Haida language
Tlingit language

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Meaning of Minnehaha

Q: Does the name Minnehaha mean Laughing Waters?

A: No. In his popular 19th-century poem "Hiawatha," Longfellow named his heroine Minnehaha and translated it as Laughing Water. Longfellow took most of the Indian words in "Hiawatha" from a book of Ojibwe legends, and they are reasonably accurate, but in the case of Minnehaha, he made an error. Minnehaha comes from the Dakota Sioux name of a waterfall, mnihaha (also spelled mniaa or mnixaxa... the "h" sounds are pronounced raspily, like the "j" in "jalapeño.") This means "water of the falls" or, more literally, "curling waters."

The idea that "haha" sounded like laughing probably came from an English speaker either playing a joke or inventing a meaning. It's possible that it could have been an honest mistranslation, though, since the Dakota word for "laugh" is the rather similar-sounding iha.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Native American names
Dakota language
Words in Hiawatha

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Hawaiian Language Vs. the DMV

Hawaiian isn't one of the languages we work with ourselves-- Hawaiian is a Polynesian language, not an Amerindian one, and it's a stretch to even call it a language of the Americas (Hawaii isn't anywhere near North America geographically, and is only associated with the Americas at all due to a quirk of historical colonialism.) Native Hawaiians have gone through many of the same struggles with preserving their language and culture that Native Americans have, though, so it was interesting to read this week's news about a Hawaiian man's ongoing quest to use his traditional Hawaiian language at the Kaneohe DMV:

This isn't just some random guy trying to use a loophole to get out of a ticket-- if you Google "Daniel Anthony" and "Hawaiian" you can see that he's been promoting traditional Hawaiian culture for a long time, and was pushing to use the Hawaiian language for official purposes previous to his arrest. This is undoubtedly a protest action on his part. And he seems to have a particularly valid point-- Hawaiian is actually one of the official state languages of Hawaii, the only US state to have an official language besides English. What's the point of having an official language, taught to children in schools, if people can't use it in state offices like the DMV or the courthouse the same way they can use unofficial languages like Spanish or Japanese?

One of the most important elements of successful language maintenance and revival is having practical opportunities to keep using the language. The DMV may be as good a place to start as any.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Apache Mythological Names

Q: I have been trying to find (without success) the Apache
words for--

White-Painted Woman

Would you be willing to translate these for me?
I would very much appreciate it.

A: These are the names of mythological figures. The names are a little different in the different Apache languages. White Painted Woman and Woman Without Parents are the same person. Her name is Isdzánádleeshé in Mescalero Apache and Isdzán Nádleeshe in Western Apache. Pollen Girl is named Tádidin It'éeké in Mescalero, and Hádintin Na'ilín in Western Apache.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Native American legends
Apache language
Native American translations

Friday, August 2, 2013

Native American Gender

Q: I read that Native Americans didn't have male and female genders, instead they just had animate and inanimate genders. Do Native Americans still feel this way? Is this why there are two-spirits in Native American culture?

A: Actually, more than anything, this is just an example of an English word changing its meaning over time. "Gender" originally just meant "category," which is the Latin word it came from. In Latin, nouns were categorized into groups of "masculine" nouns, "feminine" nouns, and "neuter" nouns, which used different grammatical endings. (You can still see this in many European languages, like Spanish.) That is how "gender" eventually came to specifically refer to masculinity/femininity, which is how it is usually used today.

Native American languages do not have masculine or feminine noun categories. Instead, some of them (such as the Ojibwe language) have animate and inanimate noun categories. Animate nouns, like "dog," take different grammatical forms than inanimate nouns, like "shoe." When linguists talk about "animate gender," they are using the older definition of "gender," and they mean the category of words that are animate.

This doesn't mean Native American cultures don't have male and female genders, don't care about gender, or don't have any traditional gender roles. It is solely a grammar issue. For comparison, the English language also does not have any grammatical masculine or feminine noun categorization.

As for two-spirits, in some Native American tribes, two-spirits were a special class of people who displayed both masculine and feminine qualities. They are completely unrelated to grammar.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas