Our Indigenous Languages

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.

S2: From New York City, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I’m John McWhorter and you seem to like the language family says.

S3: I guess a lot of you want to know what languages are like around the world and how they divide into groups. And, you know, I like the language family shows, too. It’s one of my favorite subjects. And like I said, I can’t give you every language family. Frankly, some of them lend themselves better to this format than others. And if I gave you all them, it would get boring. But there are a great many where I’d like to share with you what fascinates me about them. And one show I haven’t done that some of you have asked for is a show about Native American languages. And of course, that’s not a single family, as we’ll see, not by a long shot. Nevertheless, naturally, one thinks of them as a subject to themselves. And so let’s do Native American languages. What are they? What were they? What makes them interesting? You really get so very little about these languages, except actually these days in the media. You do read quite a bit about revitalization of Native American languages, attempts to save them from no longer being spoken. But in a lot of that coverage, for very understandable reasons, you really learn nothing or next to nothing about what these languages are actually like. You would be pardoned for thinking that they lay out just like, you know, English and Spanish and German and Dutch and maybe Russian. It’s just that their words are of different shapes and they have different endings. No, there’s a lot more than that. You can learn quite a bit about language writ large by seeing how Native American languages work. Now, specifically, I want to do North America. It really would be too big a subject to do the entire Western Hemisphere. But even in North America, we’re not talking about a single family because first of all, before Europeans got to this continent, by conservative estimate, there were about 300 languages spoken. That’s a lot more than you might think. I don’t think that any of you thought that there was one, quote unquote, Indian language, but you might think that there were, say, 25, maybe 40 or something like that. After all, you don’t hear about the vast majority of them. But actually, it was about 300. And if you’re talking about the difference between language and dialect, nobody asked me and they shouldn’t. But I would say that really was probably more than three hundred was more like about 400. But several hundred. And the tragic thing is that of those original languages, that’s at the point that after the next couple of generations, say after the next 50 years and some people say even less time, only a couple handfuls of those languages will be spoken in the sense that communities of people will be passing them on to toddlers. And that really is something that should give us pause, really. It could be as few as about a dozen of these languages that actually have thriving and ongoing communities of people speaking them in the way that a human language is supposed to actually be used. So part of this lecture will give you a sense of what has been lost and why language death matters and why it’s urgent to save these languages in some form as much as we can. Let’s get to it. So we’ve got these three hundred or so languages. Now they divide pretty neatly into three groups and we’ll get into what a family is versus a group. For now, let’s just call it a group. There are three groups. One of them is Eskimo allocute. Another one is not DNA. What the world is that? We’ll see. Then the other one is Amarant. So let’s start with Eskimo Aliyu. These are languages that, as you might imagine, are spoken in the Arctic Circle and below. And so we’re talking about much of Canada and also a little bit in Siberia. So Sarah Palin could see Russia from her house in Alaska. Then what she was looking on was an area where almost surely Eskimo Aliu languages either were or are spoken. And by the way, the term Eskimo is now, of course, incorrect and more correct, although apparently not perfect either. But the closest I think I could come to correct is to say in you it. But the truth is that the language family itself is still conventionally called Eskimo Aleut or Escalate, where the Eskimo part is not hidden. This family is divided into what you might call just three languages. Eskimo Aliyu is small. There’s Aliu and that’s spoken on that chain of islands that’s off of Alaska and looks kind of like a braid. That’s all cute there. Then the two others are UPC. And into it and within all three of these, there are dialects where they kind of skirt the line between being languages versus dialects and where do you draw the line. But three basic languages and they’re really interesting in terms of showing you what a language can be.

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S4: And so, for example, one thing about them is that a sentence for us is in their language is often just a single long Dagwood sandwich of a word. Dagwood is a character in the old comic strip blondy. By the way, for those of you who are not 700 years old, these long, long words that are whole sentences. It’s fascinating. So, for example, you pick on this is Siberian, you pig. So this is maybe the you pick that Sarah Palin can practically hear from her living room. How would you say? Also, he wants to acquire a big boat. I really like he wants to get a big boat, too. How would you say that in Siberia? You pick. He wants to get a big boat, too. Is all one word. And that word is on Jeff land use to do that again on. Yeah. Plan Gilb to do all. That’s just one word and just the sounds can be fascinating. And so there is a sound not look but. And so on. Guk Non argued to you that is this latter relies fricative as we call it is not a mistake. It’s not that on slurring. It’s that that’s actually a sound or the word ends in two too. So I’m not saying to CLU. I’m saying to you, to you. I’m pronouncing something in the region of my uvula, that little thing bouncing around at the back of the throat. So you can have to and you can have your heart stop there on your alveolar ridge. You can have. We’re used to that. That’s the soft palate. Well, why is that the only stop? We know there’s a such thing called the glottal stop and that which is back there. Well, what about in between the soft palate curve and the glottal stop way back there? Suppose it was. That’s a huge gular stop. Many languages have that, too. So what these languages, if you see them on the page, one way that you know that it’s Eskimo Aliyu is that the words are suspiciously long. Another way, you know, is that there seem to be all these cues because of that wonderful sound. Some of you might be asking, you know, I’m saying, well, you know, it’s this long word for what we would have as a sentence.

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S5: Well, given the fact that we do not speak with spaces between, you get the point that I’m making.

S3: How do you make the decision to call these words words rather than just sentences where for some reason people don’t write spaces between the words and the answer to that is that the way the quote unquote words come out in these long words that are actually sentences is different from the way they would be if they were just by themselves.

S6: And so, for example, boat ANGA, big clock. So it’s the the and then. OK, so clock that’s big. So boat big.

S4: That’s how they say big boat in the whole word that I’ve given us a sentence. The UNEF language talk to the boat big is not on yet. And then hop instead is just on you. That’s all. So UNEAC and Fluck get smashed together and all you have in our sandwich word is on there. Then another example. I’m not going to bother with the middle of it. Another example is that the word for also sort of that you tack onto the end of this to say, oh, he wants to get a big boat, too. That word is like if you looked it up in a dictionary, it’s with that lateral lives fricative. But in our word, it just comes out as actually easier for us, the changes into a look. So it’s all sorts of things like that. And this isn’t just random aspects of the way you might say something fast today as opposed to tomorrow, how people talk with their mouth full, etc.. This is really the way it has to go. These are rules. So when the words come together, they change each other in ways that only happen when they’re next to each other in that way. That’s one of the reasons why you think of these single words, not to mention that the speakers themselves will tell you it’s just a word they seem to know and you want to respect what they’re saying and it makes perfect sense. So that is this group, Aliyu, you pick it and you it called conventionally Eskimo Aliyu. They’re up there and actually that’s the smallest of our big groups and that’s quali. Definitely a family. Ah. Second group. And this is definitely a. Emily two is called Nare DNA that doesn’t get around much more informally. You’ll hear about that Athabascan languages. But technically, Athabascan is just part of not DNA. These are languages that stretch from Alaska into a lot of western Canada.

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S6: And then they make a jump down into the American southwest into where John Ford seemed to set every second one of his movies after a certain point down in Alaska, British Columbia and such. And then all of a sudden, whoo hoo! Down there. Not in a is about fifty fifty five languages. And among them, the doggie in the window is Navajo. That’s the people and perhaps the language that one hears about, especially because Navajo is the most thriving of the Native American languages. By some counts, it’s been one of the most thriving. In particular, Navajos had the largest population of native speakers and has been being passed on most vigorously of all the Native American languages until recently. That’s changing, but that’s part of why one hears about now the whole and may even meet somebody who speaks Navajo, etc.. And Navajo is absolutely fascinating in that it shows you the outer edges of how very broke human language can be.

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S4: And what I mean is something very simple about what it would be like to learn Navajo and how incredible the task would turn out to be and how incredible, therefore, it is that human beings speak this with ease. Human cognition never ceases to amaze me. So, for example, you have a verb. And it means to move something. Although, of course, because this is Navajo, which gets very particular about this sort of thing.

S6: It’s not just moving any old thing, not a chair, not an umbrella, but things that are ropey. If you’re gonna move something that’s ropey, like a dead snake or let’s have it be a rope, then the verb for to move in the present is like so present, past, future move a rope like thing in the present lay in the past. It’s law in the future. It’s late. And notice what I did. It’s that lateral realized fricative again down here and Navajo late. So la la la. Present, past future. Now the way we think of it is that well there’s gonna be a way of making a present tense verb past. That’s going to involve some change. And then future is gonna be the same way because French. Because Spanish so la la la. Well how about cut out the verb for to cut out if the eye offends Deek. I cut out that Poe or something. Yeah. Anyway the verb is Geshe. That’s the present. So I’m cutting it out. Geshe. Well how do you make that past.

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S4: Well if with the move verb it was left becomes law then you figure that Geshe is gonna become gosh goes something like that. So Gaige. Gosh. Right. Because language makes sense. No moving the rope like thing goes from Laye to law in the past. But if you put Geshe into the past, you make it ghys ghys. So for one thing, the vowel does not change into. It changes into something else. And then the shirt becomes as you. OK, well, future you have less goes to lay. So you’re figuring the future involves sticking a onto something. So it’s going to be. And you can almost tell that’s not quite going to work. This shirt kind of gets in the way. But it turns out that what the future is has nothing to do with anything, with any laterals, fricative or anything. Geshe present ghys past future geese. That’s it. It’s like the language is almost trying to make fun of you. And so you think you’re trying to make sense of things and you figure, well, OK, lay must be sort of the first conjugation. And then there’s this other group, like the second conjugation that do things like Gaist. So you wait to see what those groups are going to be and you learn one verb after another after another. And after a while you realize there’s no pattern. They’re all different. They all do their own thing. And of course, it’s not just present, past and future. Depending on how you look at it. They’re about 10 things. There’s a subjunctive. There’s a repetitive. And with each verb, it just does its own thing. And you have to know the patterns. There’s no such thing as here’s how you form the past. In Navajo, every verb is different. And of course, there are rules of thumb. You know, the people who speak this have human cognition and you would expect some patterns. But really, they’re the broadest of patterns, with as many exceptions as rules. I mean, if these are rules of thumb, then it’s more like their rules of of ring finger, like a finger that doesn’t move very well. And so that’s what Navajo is like. You have to know how thousands of verbs go and, you know, babies and toddlers can pick this up. And by the time you’re old enough to realize how complicated that is. Well, it’s too late. You’re living your life. And, of course, ordinary people don’t walk around thinking about how their language works. And it’s no exception with Navajo, but it really does give you pause. And so talk about John Ford’s films. Navajo and Apache are very similar. They are about like Spanish and Portuguese. And in a lot of those classic John Ford films, the Native Americans that are on the margins, they are often Apaches. And I always find myself thinking, well, this is a great movie. But of course, nobody has any reason to think about the fact that these people are speaking. One of the most complex, one of the most irregular languages in the whole world. And so, you know, one of the characters might say, well, in my language, the way you say rainbow is above above law. And I’m always thinking to myself. Yeah. But in your language, you might say, I will come out to see the rainbow tomorrow and then we will talk about what happened yesterday. You’re not going to tell them that the way you say will come is completely different from what you say will talk and that there’s no regular way of indicating the future at all. Of course, nobody’s thinking about that either within the narrative or the Apaches who played those parts, often in real life. But any Apache you see in one of those old movies, they’re speaking basically this thing that I just explained to you, where irregularity is that absolutely implacable. In any case, it’s time for a musical cue. And I want to make it something that isn’t tacky. And so I’ll just make it something that’s trivial. Let’s do Calamity Jane. This is a musical, a Hollywood musical. This is 1953. This is Doris Day singing. It’s hard not to like Doris Day, even if you don’t like corny old musicals. There’s something about her vocal equipment. She is playing what was an obvious knockoff of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun some years before. So this is the opening scene and she’s a quote unquote, tomboy, and she’s coming to the city and she’s singing a very catchy song called Deadwood Stage. People ask why I like musicals and I’ll say that was all kind of an accident. This is one of the first musical films I’ve sat down and watched because I’d heard of it and I wondered what it was like. And I remember really liking the song just because it’s kind of catchy.

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S7: So this is the Deadwood stage whip crack away, whip crack away, which is. Breakaway with breakaway, with breakaway. The dead would stay just ahead, not over where the gennaro’s are porcupine. Time to delay.

S8: Oh, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Well, then, did they just coming on over the crate like the pigeon, that’s a hankering after its.

S3: Today, we remember that these languages that on a drive by in this episode, these are mostly unwritten languages. Very important to remember, as I always say, that it’s not writing that makes a language, a language. And so, for example, one of the Eskimo Alley languages and looked at tooth has been written a lot in recent decades. It’s not that none of these languages are written. You can read a newspaper in a book. You can have school teaching materials, etc. But with the vast majority of these 300 or 400 languages, they’ve only been written down mostly by missionaries and anthropologists and linguists. But they are basically oral languages. And nevertheless, notice how they are often vastly more complex than any language we’re likely to be familiar with.

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S6: All the other Native American languages, i.e., the vast majority, are of another group, which you could call Ammer, and they’ve been called that by maybe two and a half linguists who have been major lumpers rather than splitters. And I’m a lumper so I’m not putting it down, but all the other ones you could call an AMA and family. But the truth is that all the other ones simply do not have enough in common to come off as a family in the sense that any person would think of as a family beyond a linguist who’s way down into the weeds. If you look at all of these other groups, other than Eskimo Aliu to Nardini, what there is is about a dozen families and that’s a conservative estimate. But you could lump them into about a dozen of what you call families. Then there are a whole bunch of languages scattered among these all over the continent that are what we call ISIL there, like Basque. They don’t have any relatives today, no languages that are anything like them. And presumably they had families and they’re they’re orphans. They were given away, but they actually had families. There must have been other languages like them in the past that got overrun by ones that we see now. And so that would mean a whole lot of other families. And some people would say that even today there are like 40 families. But if you’re gonna be a lumper belt, about twelve. And the question is, do all of the ones today trace back to some one family, to some one language such that even in the technical sense, we can call Ammer into family the way we can? The other two groups and all of this is very controversial and I’m not sure it can be resolved. Genetics pretty much make it clear that at some point the people involved were one thing. Now, whether the people who were one thing spoke this language that was ancestral to all the language today, that’s a very complicated question, really. There’s one piece of linguistic evidence that I find convincing that suggests that maybe there’s some tiny shred of an indication that Amarant is a family. And this is evidence that has been put forth most vociferously by merit, Rulon, who has not had an academic position as a linguist.

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S4: But in a way, sometimes it’s almost because of that, that he’s more creative than a lot of linguists. And he has been interested in reconstructing, for example, the world’s very first language. And I have my feelings about that, which I’ve expressed on this show before, and will express again. But there are times when his less athletic proposals, I think at least deserve a look sometimes only that, but still. So, for example, Marrett Ruland has an idea that in Amara and you can trace back exactly three words, these family words, his idea is that there would have been if you look at all the languages and think about how all those words could trace back to a single one in the same way as you can trace back the words in that Proteau Indo European language of Ukraine. His idea is that Proteau Amarant would have had four brother or son to yna. Ina and then for sister or daughter Orna and then for child or sibling onna. So in it or not, honor those three. Well why does he think that? Well, because of hints that you get in the languages even today. So for example, down in South America and South America has hundreds and hundreds of other languages and that would make the topic too big. But just to dip in on them for a second, you have a language called Iran. She and in Iran, she male relative is Atena and female relative is Altoona. So how what’s that? And then what might seem especially interesting is that then there’s an Amazonian language called Tiki It. And in Tiki Sun, it isn’t teen, but it’s 10 and then daughter isn’t toome. But it’s tone and effort and oh are really in many ways the same thing as E and there’s a close relationship. So instead of teen intune, it’s 10 in tone, but still son and daughter tone in Mohawk to come back to North America. Boy is thene in Miwok which is in California. We’ll see it again. Daughter is toonie. So you see all sorts of things like this. Dozens and dozens of cases where E is for men and who is for women and is for something generic. And what’s interesting about it is that usually in languages there’s a tendency for E to mean cute, tiny, little unthreatening that’s just not in English. So it’s not just that we say teeny. But then to assume that E means small is ethnocentric in terms of other places, E does mean E apparently human wide and then things like, oh. And those mean bigger things. And it’s just because of the shape of the mouth. But here it’s the E that refers to the male and the O. That refers to the woman when men are usually bigger than women. So it seems to be almost an exceptional thing in terms of how languages tend to pattern things out, for better or for worse. And yet you find it in all these lines just now. The truth is that in the statistical sense, it might be that all of these things are accidents we’re talking about. If you go down to South America, a good 1000 languages from top to bottom of the hemisphere and all sorts of variations could lead it to the fact that the atena tunas are just one way that it might come out. Maybe these patterns aren’t real. You know what? If you asked me if you wake me up in the middle of the night, I would say, you know what? Probably this is like a little blip of mitochondrial DNA error that reveals that sponge and blue whales are related, probably, but that’s about as far as it can go. What about the actual families that Amarin has led to? Well, one is called Algonkin, Algonkin is spoken in lower Canada, especially the southeastern part of Canada. Then down into the northeastern United States, a fair amount. And Algonkin includes, for example, KRI, how Hattan Pocono’s language would have been pow hattan. And then Algonkin is a lot of the languages that you can think of as sort of prototypical American folk knowledge of what Native American languages would have been. So Narragansets, that was an Algonquian language, Pottawattamie and Algonkin language, Kickapoo and Algonkin language. Those, quote unquote, Indian sorts of names. A lot of those are Algonquian. One of them was Delaware. That’s not what they called it. They called varieties of this Delaware, things like NAMI, not mommy, but Nami and Munsie. But the Delaware language. And you never know what your interpretation of a person’s language is going to be if you’re not very careful. Part of what linguistic science is, is avoiding the kind of things that poor Willy impended when he had a sincere interest in learning what this language was of the people who he met when he got to this Pennsylvania territory. So here’s this Delaware. And he wants to learn it from people. And he takes out his what he had paper his parchment because he had some paper and he’s got quill and ink and he wants to learn this language. Well, these people don’t speak English, and he certainly doesn’t speak this Delaware. So he really just had to go by the seat of his pants and you read his notes and you find that he was completely missing the boat in many ways. Like, you can tell that at one point he pointed to a house and maybe raised his eyebrows or something. And he’s trying to get the word for house because that sort of thing that you start with. And this Delaware speaker said something like weakened. And so William Penn writes, House weaken. But the thing is weakened in the language actually meant. I live there and he points and the person says, yep, I live there. And William Petteri house. He thinks that that’s what it is. And he used that in talking with them, not knowing that he was formulating his own pitch in Delaware. You can imagine how he must have sounded to them. Or you can tell that at some point. I’d just like to imagine this be in the morning. And so it’s the morning and it’s a bright, golden haze on the meadow. He’s probably looking at corn and the corn. It’s got do on it and it’s growing there. And he points and says, well, what’s that? And the person says, Who? Lincoln and William Penn writes, Good. And I’m sure that that’s what William Penn was thinking because he didn’t know how to grow corn yet. And he’s hungry or something like that. And so the word who Laken is good. Well, actually, who Laken meant, the crops are growing well. The Native American looked and say, yeah, that’s coming out pretty well, that corn with the dew on it. Somebody ought to write a song about that someday. But William Penn thought it meant good. And so you could use that with Delaware speakers who Laken meant good. You’re walking around saying crops grown well and they learn that when you say that, it means good. That happened with an Algonkin language. William Penn was trying his best. But it means you have to be really careful when you really don’t have a way of communicating. I remember learning that once when I was in Papilla for about ten minutes and I had urgent need of something and I had a very limited vocabulary. But I had eaten something the night before and the only word I knew was up. And I met these women and luckily they kind of pieced out why I kept saying up and they directed me upward to where something was. You have to be very, very careful. You know what I’d eat? Actually, I had a dog and you can tell why all people in the world don’t eat dog. He was like, it’s like stringy pork. I would never want to eat a dog again. Something else about Algonkin other than me making fun of William Penn is one of my favorite, favorite pieces of grammar. That’s one of these Hooda Phuket’s that you never expect.

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S5: So we’re in KRI, the Cree language. You feed me, keep to some in you feed me Keiter some in a sound like I’m voicing KRI lesson. There’s something Keita song in. So how do you say I feed you. Well you’re thinking it’s gonna be in song Keiter or something like ni saami keat something like that. But in some. No, you don’t change to order like that. If you say you feed me, it’s key to some. Even if you say I feed you, it’s to song. Eat in and eat does not mean eat. Not it’s not English, but I feed you is Kita some eat in. In other words, you say you feed eat me. What’s the eat. That little eat is something that shows that what’s going on is the thing that you would expect less so in you feed me is the default. You feed me now if it’s I feed you because you might say that less than you’d say you feed me. What are you feeding me is one thing you get over here, I’m going to feed you. Maybe that’s less likely. And so you say you feed eat me. And that’s how a person knows that it’s me feeds you.

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S4: That’s the way the language works. That little thing is called an inverse marker. It turns things around. So, for example, you could say the man kills the louse the way you say the louse kills the man, which you wouldn’t expect is not to say the louse kills the man. That’s just completely wrong in terms of that word order. You say the man killed eight the louse, and that lets you know that the unexpected thing happens. Just I love that. In any case, Algonkin is Algonquian and they’re all spoken over in this kind of easterly part, except that these two languages that are a lot like them different, but a lot like them, like distant cousins, they’re called We Up and you’re OK. And they’re spoken over in California. And that lets you know that Algonkin must have been spoken over a much wider territory, uniting these two languages over in Northern California and all these languages in places like Ontario and Massachusetts. And that the situation we have now, therefore, is that other languages came in and sort of split off those two languages from all the others and took over other territories. So you can see how these language isolates would emerge. And one of those languages always reminds me of of warmth and embrace and not in the way that you might be thinking. We are the we odd language is one that was being studied by Lianne Hinton’s Breath of Life program at the University of California at Berkeley, where I used to teach and for reasons I won’t bother you with, the cards that were being used to help revitalize we are that summer were at my house for a spell, and when everybody started off on their session, it was discovered the week cards were missing. So I drove home and got the WI out cards and came back. And one of the native. We are people who was involved in the program was so relieved that I had gone and gotten the cards. There were all sorts of details involved. But he was so relieved that I had gone and gotten the cards that he had gave me a hug. And it was a very nice, warm hug. And I guess I can say that she was a person of a certain physical substantial less. And so it was a very embracing hug. And so I always associate we are with being embraced in any case, that brings on a song sort of hallis that exchange. This was a hit in 1930. This is Rudy Vallee singing. The way he sings now means nothing to us whatsoever. But I have always thought the song was kind of catchy in a goopy, sentimental way. This is a little kiss each morning, a little kiss each night. You’ve got to keep it going somehow.

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S9: There may be a. Bring. The has made a five.

S4: All right. Here’s another group, Iroquois in. These are the Finger Lakes groups, for example. So language just like Seneca and Colunga and Oneida and Onondaga, the Iroquois in group, you hear about the Iroquois and Confederacy. When you learn about American history, Air Koyczan is also a language group and the Iroquois and languages are absolutely fascinating in ways that are different from the Algonquian languages. But just as captivating in many ways. My favorite thing about them, and this is very arbitrary and I’ve actually discussed this on the show before, but sometimes repetition is good for us is a particular trait of these languages. You never expect a language to be this way. You never know what’s gonna happen. Here is the Kuga language, and this is the Lord’s Prayer. Now, you don’t get a word unless you’re one of a very few people in this country. But just listen to it here, okay?

S1: Mom Dehe. Hello to you. Guess 60. That’s a don’t ask me to go with you. You. Sir, what can the new. They a low when the Gosta bond pays Guynn, now Sekiya, Gallowgate and Gusty. Madondo, diffley sound. Oh, my star. The skin cicconi e. Dick Gasque. No. They ski too. Guy Norske. Yeah. The guillotine. Who wants to achieve Tuki? I may face Deep Dark Gawley antique Issan with these key titmice Tanaka skier in the last days to please give me Leo a sign.

S4: OK, now there’s a dog that didn’t bark. Thing going on here like you can find out that the person who burgled the house must have been somebody who lived there because the dog didn’t bark when the person came in. It’s the sort of thing where you don’t think of the thing that didn’t happen when actually it was crucial to the case here. I don’t know what case it’s crucial to, but what’s missing. So just listen to a bit of it again.

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S1: Just a legal channel to go with you again soon. I may sound a little naked. Do you? Sorry I’m late. It’s a lack. You he like a man.

S4: There no lips. There is no power. No bull. No fur. No. No mo. You don’t put your lips together in this language. This is an era Korean trait. Nobody knows why this happened, you know. Who knows? There are people who don’t like chocolate. Well, you do not put your lips together and blow. I guess you have to flirt in some other way in these languages, but no lips. It’s just an unusual thing about their sound system. Another one of the Iroquois languages spoken. Further afield than in the American northeast and also southeastern kind of the mohawk isn’t Iroquois language is Cherokee. And one hears about Cherokee. And partly it’s because the great Sequoia created a writing system for Cherokee. So that story tends to get around. And it means that you hear about Cherokee a lot. And he invented a writing system because he saw that English speakers had what he called talking leaves was like that. And he wanted to have that for his language. And the way he created this writing system is actually instructive in terms of how weird the transition from speech language being just a mouthful of air is to writing. So what do you think he did? He saw the talking leaves. He didn’t know how to read. What’s the first thing you think he did? Well, of course, he he drew pictures. His original idea was you’re going to have a little picture of a dog. And for sleep, maybe you’re going to have a little picture of it. I don’t know what he did, a pillow or something like that. But as you can imagine, to try to come up with something like that from the ground up as opposed to gradually the way it presumably happened with Chinese is hard because pretty soon you realize that your language has tens of thousands of words. And really, how are you going to draw already? How are you going to draw sometimes? So he let that go. But then the next thing for him was not an alphabet. So you’ve got a word, cat. The idea that you’re going to decide, OK, there’s going to be something for something for at something for, you know, to come up with that immediately would make you somebody who anticipates linguistic science without any kind of training, without anybody helping you, without a foot in the door. And that’s not the way it usually goes. People spontaneously think of words as being composed of syllables. You find that with non literate people. Even today, you say divide up that word into parts. They don’t go. If you ask the person, well, what’s how do you divide up spaghetti? They’re not going to say sit at E. They’re going to say, well, first spar, then get then T. So that’s how Sequoyah thought of his language. And so the Cherokee writing system is a syllabary. The symbols correspond to syllables in Cherokee. And it’s really neat looking. Look it up online. And that is something that happened to an Iroquois in language. Now, when you get to California, what’s interesting is that in that state, there are at least five families represented, pretty big state, but still five of these roughly say a dozen, maybe 15 families, depending on what you call it, in the continental United States. Five are represented in California and probably more. There’s massive linguistic diversity. Sometimes you see the number seventy eight languages just in California. And remember that the grand total of about 300 on the whole landmass, whole lot. Why so many languages just in California? And there are many possible reasons why. But these days, as knowledge of how this landmass was populated, advances by leaps and bounds practically by the month. There are increasing numbers of hypotheses that suggests that it wasn’t only that the ancestors of Native Americans came in from Siberia and spread down, but that some of them must have come in from Siberia but then gone down the coast and that maybe they even did this by sea. So it wasn’t. Riding in and kind of sploshing down into the Rocky Mountains, some people may be started right over there on the edge, and actually all that diversity in California suggests that because if languages have been sitting and becoming different from one another for a really, really long time, then that means that you’re going to have more languages in that place more often. So if you look at the whole map of the distribution of languages in North America, original indigenous languages, then all of that patchwork over there in California suggests that everything started there. And then as you move eastward, well, you don’t have as many languages because languages haven’t been around for quite as long. So it’s just a suggestion that’s the way it may come out. And one indication of it is just how many languages there are in California. But then, of course, what interests me is also what a lot of them are like. And so, for example, one family in California is called pollution. And anybody who knows anything about these knows that I am stepping into a hornet’s nest of murder, a hornet’s nest in saying that pollution is a family at all. And I’m going to step away from that controversy for these purposes. Let me say, there’s a pincushion language family. One of the languages in it is called Miwok. I mentioned Miwok a little bit before. How about the word for man? So none got. None got. That’s the word from it. OK. I saw a man. Would it be. I saw a non got no. It would be. I saw a nun guy. So you have to mark the object if it’s the man’s book. So it’s the Book of the man. It’s the book Nun Gone. So a different ending. I gave the book to the man. I gave the book Nun Got Toe or the book is on the man’s head. I found a book on a man nun. And this goes on and on and on. So the book was written by the man, Nun Gosset. In other words, Miwok has case, Miwok has case endings. The nouns conjugate, so to speak. Depending on how you’re using them in the sentence. Just like Latin. And so it’s easy to think, well, languages that bother you with all that case stuff. There’s something European about it. That’s something where it’s Cicero or Tolstoy or something like that. No, you get that in any old place. And some continents are more into that than others. But Native American languages include ones where you have to learn cases just like you’re learning for the word for star. Stella. Stella. Stella. Stella. Stella. In Latin. Same thing. An unwritten language, not a language that’s written down. Nobody’s writing about Gaul being divided into three parts or writing about their psychopath orthography or anything like that. This is a language that’s spoken. You might talk about Gaul being divided into three parts and I’m sure they talk about their psycho biography. But these are not written languages and yet case then with some of them. So you can go to another language that Mark’s case. This one is called Yogurt’s Yogurt’s has this, but it’s irregular. A.F., as the kids are calling it, A.F. means as fuck. So, for example, Bown to eat. Well, if you bite a bone, then you bite. Yeah. OK. So house to eat. To eat now, let’s say that you you buy a house. Do you buy it? No. You buy it. It just completely different vowel changes. The ending is different. You’ve just got to know. Or a fire seat. That’s a fire. OK, well, you started the fire and you you burn that house down to start a fire. You start and you seat. No. Do you start in, Lucita? No. Do you start. No. You started off dope and you just have to know it goes on and on. You know what this makes me say? It makes me say this. That.

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S6: That’s Robin Harris.

S4: The late, great comedian, black American comedian. He would start his standup with that goddamn if he had ever had to learn yogurt’s, if the situation emerged where he had to learn to express himself in jokes. He would certainly have said that many times. And speaking of God damn, you know, folks, the virus is hitting the media really hard. And Slate is included in that. And there’s no danger. But one way that you could help us out is by signing up for our Slate plus service. And you’ve heard me talk about this on the show before. But at this point, it’s more important than it ever has been before. And with Slate plus, what you get is an extra bit at the end that you can’t access anywhere else. And you get to hear the show all the way through. And this really does help us out in these times, because for a while we are operating with many fewer resources than we ever have before. So go to Slate dot com slash lexicon, plus that slate dot com slash lexicon plus. And for a nominal fee, you can not only get extra material, but you can also help out Slate and not just this podcast, but all of them at an unusually lean time. If you sign it for Slate plus then this week you’ll learn something about Walt Disney you never knew, but you can only find out by signing up for Slate plus at Slate dot com slash lexicon plus. OK, one more. I’ve always like this to know. One is another one of these families. We’re talking about kind of the southern Midwest and Westward and Kiowa. The Kiowa language throws you like that inverse and Algonkin. You never know what a language is. Logic is going to be default language. Logic is not how things work in Spanish and German. By no means. So a skunk, tall skunks, tall goal, OK. So if you’re William Penn, you’re quite reasonably thinking that Gaul is plural. That would be quite reasonable. So tall Gaul isn’t going to mean like the skunks reproductive parts or something like that. Talgo. It’s plural. Good. What about a horse? Well, you find out that it’s a tick. Say what about horses? Say golf. So a bunch of horses, if you see them all together, say golf. So you’re thinking, well, the plural marker in Kiawah is goal. But it doesn’t really work that way because get this, it’s all wing. It’s old. Got wings. No, that’s not it. You find out your informant, you find out the person you’re talking to like you’re William Penn actually points to several, I guess. Let’s say you’re fried chicken wings. Several of them. And he says to all. And William Penn thinks, well, that must mean one of the men. He holds up one of them. And he says no. So. Right. And the person says, no. That one is all gone. All go is the one little triangle that he’s holding up. All of them spread out and covered with barbecue sauce and time for the Super Bowl. That is just. Oh. And so you think, well, OK, that’s just some exception or something, but then it’s the same thing. Let’s say you eat them all down. I’m going by the seat. My pants are. But you eat them all down to the bones. And so William Penn is patting his belly and he holds up one bone and he says, well, what’s this person who speaks Kiawah? And they say, Paul said, God, no, not what are all these? What’s this one thing I’m holding TOSA goal. Well, then what’s all this mess down here on the table? That’s just toss it. So what’s the goal? The goal isn’t plural. The goal marks what is less expected. So you never see Skunk’s together. They must get together for one thing, but there’s always one skunk. So if you do have skunks, then it’s going to be goal. But then we’ll say, bones, why one bone, you know, outside of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, really? You see a lot of bones. And so one bone is the odd thing. And so it’s gonna be bone got. So to speak. Or wings. You rarely see just one. Like, I’m forcing it by talking about fried chicken. But really in this setting. Wings are on birds. And unless you’re truly unfortunate bird, you’ve got at least two. And so you always see more than one wing. So one wing, if you did rip the arm off some poor pigeon or something like that, that is a wing goal. That’s how quote unquote plural works in Kiawah. And this sort of thing just goes on and on. I’m not going to I hope that I’ve given you a taste of the wonder of the languages that were spoken here before Europeans came and turned everything upside down. And in return for hearing me out, I’m going to rot your teeth out with sugar. Can I play you something from the musical version of Booth Tarkington, 17, Booth Tarkington used to be as well regarded as Jonathan Franzen. Now we think of Booth Tarkington. It’s frankly, Booth Tarkington and nobody reads 17. But if you read it, then you can tell that somebody must have made a musical of it. And actually, it happened twice. And this is from 1950. This is one of the final numbers of 17 sickly sweet candy corn, blackstrap molasses. This is if we only could stop the old town clock. Get ready.

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S10: This is going to hurt if we only could stop the old town. So if you don’t take our time with.

S11: I’ve been wrong by. Does nobody know what time it was, just me or anyone else? Six mean I. Oh, okay.

S4: It wouldn’t go ding and it wouldn’t go. We’re going to have a little addendum here and slide us into it gradually. It’s nineteen thirty seven. This is Fred and Ginger. This is one of their best movies. Shall We Dance? And they’re singing one of their best songs. This is George and IRA Gershwin. You’ve probably heard this at least in snatches. And it’s the one that goes like this.

S12: You say even though I say you say me. I say nine either. Either. Maybe not. Let’s call the whole. Lie and I lie. You lie to me. And I like tomato, potato, potato, tomato, tomato. Oh, let’s call the whole thing, OK.

S4: But the question has always been always in the back of my mind. Who does say potato like either one either? Yeah. A lot of us say both. And tomato. You imagine a British person may be saying it, but they’re Americans. And I’ve always thought tomato, a cute rhyme. And it’s cute to imagine somebody saying tomato. I think I’ve heard people from across the pond saying it, but I always thought even in their America, is anybody running around saying tomato? They were because listen to fill in the blank who it’s gonna be. Listen to Lucille Ball on the Lucy show. This is 1967 and she’s just making a salad. This is very casual.

S13: Listen to Lucille Ball, who was from New York State, very casually saying and not for effect, the word tomato here, some beautiful tomatoes and lettuce and oh, you know, that might make a wonderful Caesar salad, but that’s not why I bring this episode up, because this episode is with Milton Berle.

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S6: And listen to what Milton Berle says.

S13: Not long after Lucy says tomato, I could find a very large salad bowl.

S14: I’ll find it kind of puts it into the front door. Oh.

S13: Hello. A movie star just on stand there.

S4: Oh. To get that, just don’t stand there. Let her in. Milton Uncle Milty, why it’s. Don’t just stand there. And, you know, I tried to be a linguist about this. I got a lot of mail about you just can’t go in there and start yelling and some of you get what I mean. Some of you really don’t for thoroughly understandable reasons. And I should just say that it’s not that I think that it’s not clear. We always know what the person means. It’s just that it seems to me that the word order doesn’t correspond to what we mean. In other words. This is just the way languages go. Languages are always full of dings, just like in yogurt’s. You say posto as the plural of Lucy. You just never know what there’s gonna be. But being a linguist about it, I opened my ears and tried to hear other examples. And one thing I was thinking is, is it really just Ken? Because usually that’s not how things work. You’re looking for patterns. And it’s not just Ken at all. It’s with other auxiliaries, too. So, for example, just don’t stand there. And when I kind of rummage around in my head, I realize that I, like you have heard plenty of people saying that. And then on top of that, this, I would not have had problems poking around in my head. Aaron Brown, thank you for this. This is ice tea, and one of his ditties was called If I’m a Bitches to the way it went was like this. And listen to how he uses H.

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S15: So, ladies, we just think talking about cause somebody y’all niggas is bitches to.

S4: So it’s that same thing because it should be, quote unquote. I ain’t just talking about you. I’m not only talking about you. You’re not upset that I bought you the wrong colored dress. You’re not upset that we’re having carrots rather than celery. I’m just not talking about you. And you wish you were getting more attention. It’s just that I’m not talking about you. That’s what just ain’t talking about you would mean. I ain’t just talking about you. I am not talking about you. That’s the way it quote unquote should be. And I’m not alone in my feeling about this, because if you look at lyric transcriptions of this song, people often switch it to I ain’t just talking about you because they assumed that’s what he said. But in colloquial English, you often reverse with just there’s just something about just in any case, I don’t think we’re going to go out on bitches, too. So let’s go to something a little more interesting, although gritty in its way. This is Lena Horne and she is singing the wonderful Any Place I Hang My Head is home, originally from the musical St. Louis Woman. And she takes the song and really does what many people think of as the signature version of it. She’s singing it in the 1950s. This is Lena Horne singing Any place I Hang, My Hat is home. There’s Lena. There’s the arrangement. Just splendid.

S16: We’ve been exchanging. So.

S3: You can reach us at Lexicon Valley at Slate dot com. That’s Lexicon Valley at Slate dot com. To listen to past shows and subscribe or just to reach out, go to Slate dot com slash Lexicon Valley. By the way, Katie Grenfell and Jo Ann Clark Stein have taught me something that I should’ve thought of years ago. Sometimes you should put liquor in your peach jello. You’ll be glad you did. Mike Volo is, as always, the editor. And I’m John McWhorter. Oh, by the bullet, Ron.

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S4: What’s in a word? You never know, good goodbye is God be with you? I’m always on the lookout for things like that. I wanted to share one of these with you that almost never comes up. And yet it’s absolutely, absolutely fascinating. So, for example, I’m always giving you etymology, ologies of nicknames. But what about last names? What about Disney? Lots of Disney. You know what Disney is? It’s first of all, it’s from French and it’s do something. And so just like somebody might be named D’Angelo and you know that that’s the romance language do of Disney is Disney and the Disney is easy money, which is a town in France.

S6: So the Disney’s traced back to people in France who made their way elsewhere.

S5: So Disney starts as the easy money. But what is easy? What’s that from?

S4: Well, eating ye starts as a Germanic name because you have these goths that are all over Europe and some of them are Norsemen and Vikings, et cetera. Those people are speakers of Germanic languages. One name in those languages was Ekso. Okay, well, these dramatic people come into the French territory that’s originally occupied by people speaking Celtic languages like today’s Welsh and Irish. While in France, there was a language very much like those. And it was called Gaulish. That’s what the people in the Asterix comics would be speaking English. If you have a suffix on the end of a name, meaning something like belonging to. It was Yarkon. Well, if you are a romance speaker, then Yarkon sounded to you like it was Latin, any outcome a Latin person makes that into any outcome. And so you have this Germanic language, EASO. And then you have these Latin speakers coming in and they hear E! So Yarkon and they hear it as E senior going. So ECD outcome. That’s what they have it. As time goes by esten, the outcome becomes easy. And then you have somebody from ECV there from it. They’re of it. They do it. And so they do. And so they Disney. They’re Disney. They’re Disney. And pretty soon you’ve got Mickey Mouse. So what that means is that Disney, that name, just those six letters, just the six letters d i. S n e y. What that stands for is it’s partly French, just the do, partly Germanic, the east.

S5: And then the NE is Celtic.

S4: So three subfamilies of Indo European have a little train wreck and create that word Disney. Isn’t that just cool. I always thought so. And thank you for listening to and paying for Slate plus.