In the mid-nineteenth century, Stephen James emigrated from Wales to work as a shipbuilder on the Great Lakes. Though he didn’t know his great-great-granddaughter would one day teach at Zuni Pueblo, he bequeathed to her the legacy of the unvoiced, or aspirated, L.
Llewellyn. Llangollen. The tongue forms an L, but the vocal cords rest and let the breath take over. English-speakers struggle, but Zuni-speakers are right at home with Grandpa’s double L.
Me’shoko eshe llabissho.
It means “donkey lips.” If you can say it, you’re Zuni…or Welsh.
Scene: Two Zuni first graders, noses almost on their desks, intently freewriting and helping each other with the hard bits:
Zoe: How do you spell cute?
Brandon (deadpan): Q-U-A-C-K.
Zoe: T’ank you.
A fast trip to the muddy roads of Zuni Pueblo, to admire this year’s babies and exclaim over how big last year’s have grown. There’d been lots of snow; it was so wet, they warned us, that the Navajos were parking on the pavement.
I learned to say “quack” in Zuni: naknak’ya. The apostrophe is a glottal stop, the tiny pause in Uh-oh! (which in Zuni would be spelled Uh’oh!).
The past tense of naknak’ya is naknak’yakkya. The happy clamor of ducks on a pond: Zuni nails it.
How do aliens swear?
Not just aliens but all speakers of imaginary languages. Think about it. A polytheist who says “My god!” means something quite different than does a monotheist—and wouldn’t capitalize.
In Listening at the Gate I needed an epithet for use by Nondany, the itinerant master folklore collector. I settled on “By life!” I like it so much I want to get a slang wave going.
Recently a librarian nailed me with a steel eye and asked whether there was any “bad language” in the novel. I explained that it took place in an imaginary culture, but since all cultures have profanity, I’d had to invent some. She looked baffled. And bought the book.
You’ve evoked an imaginary world. You want the speech of its denizens to sound human and true…but if you use contemporary slang the Norns sound like Valley Girls. What now?
Here’s a solution:
…..“It hums so loud, Kat. I can’t not hear it.”
…..“Is—is it death?”
…..“It’s greater than death.”
…..I tried to think of something greater than death, and could not.
……………………………—Listening at the Gate
In dialogue, the speakers use contractions: can’t, it’s. But the in the text of the book proper, the matrix, words are spelled out in full: could not.
Subtle. Simple. And it works.
In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, thirteen indigenous languages are spoken. (This in addition to Spanish.)
In Oaxaca city, working with a group of preschool teachers who were making handmade readers for their students, we posed a question: How, in your various languages, would you express quantity: words like “lots,” “a few,” “some,” “a bunch”?
They grinned and asked us back: What are you referring to? Because in our languages it depends whether you’re talking about a lot/few/some/bunch of:
Long, skinny objects
Stuff that is neither close nor far away
Things we used to have
Things we might have someday
and so on.
I was humbled. Until then I had felt smug about the precision of my prose.
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