Yesterday was an important day for me: It marked the 25th anniversary (a quarter century!) of my entry into the USA. To commemorate this day, I had a crazy idea: I want to learn Ojibwe, probably better known as Chippewa. Why? My son is Ojibwe, I used to live in Chippewa County and worked on an Indian reservation for a few years and have always had a fascination with Native American culture.
I figured it could not be that hard because I have a knack for languages. Boy was I wrong. The problem is that I learned English on the fly by reading a lot and watching game shows. Sure, I had five years of English in school, but I do not remember my grammar terms – much to the chagrin of some of my editors, I am sure. It’s a good thing my publishers do not know they are not dealing with a native English speaker.
I know what a subject, object, and clause is, but the buck stops there. When I was Googling learning the Ojibwe language I was assaulted with terms like aspiration (something that seems very important to the language and can lead to major faux pas if you get it wrong), intransitive, indicative, conjunct, imperative, prohibitive, independent and conjunct orders, paradigms … and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And no, I do not know these words in German either; it’s been way too long since I have been out of school. I suppose I could simply print out word lists and memorize words, but I will have to know how to pronounce them.
As I found out, pronunciation is an art form in itself – even though I have learned to pronounce French and Dutch characters before which are not exactly easy - because of combinations like aanh, iinh, oonh. Why bother learning pronunciation if I am not going to speak these words to anyone? Well, they have to be right in my head, that’s just me.
So, I set out to find at least one word, which is sunflower. If I could choose a Native American name for myself, it would be that, so I wanted to learn that word first. Alas, that opened up a whole new can of worms. While searching for sun, I found that mooka'am means “sun rises” but moo means “feces” and moo’ means “makes him cry.” See why pronunciation would be very important?
What I have learned, but sort of already knew before starting this, is that Native American languages may have simple sentence structure, but are very pictorial in nature. For example, placement of verbs (clauses) is not that important, but you can’t just string two words together to create another, which is common in English. Like, giigoonh means “fish” and giizis means “sun,” but giizis giigoonh does not come out to sunfish. No, that would be agwadaashi. However, agwadaashi also means panfish and giizis also means moon and month.
Oijibwe also has incredibly long words. I mean, so does German (Fahrvergnuegen anyone?), but that is nothing compared to anishinaabemowin.
They say that learning a new language can ward of Alzheimer’s. Well, I will certainly need a whole lot of room in my head to store all this.