Sapir’s special focus among American languages was in the Athabaskan languages, a family which especially fascinated him. In a private letter, he wrote: “Dene is probably the son-of-a-bitchiest language in America to actually know…most fascinating of all languages ever invented.”
I’ve been doing some work to learn:
- how it was that Navajo got to be classified as an Athabaskan language and
- what linguistic evidence exists for the northern origins of the Navajo.
This is a good journey, but challenging.
Sometimes it leads me to stuff like this:
which: ok, how much can we trust these linguists? Are we sure we’re on solid ground here?
The big categorizing of native American languages was done by Albert Gallatin in the 1830s.
Could he have been wrong? People were wrong a lot back then.
Well, after looking it with an amateur’s enthusiasm, I feel more trusting.
I feel confident Navajo/Dene is connected to languages of what’s now Alaska, British Columbia, and nearby turf.
Navajo / Dene speakers can be understood by speakers of other Athabaskan languages, and most of the words in Navajo seem to have Athabaskan origin.
Edward Sapir wrote a paper about internal evidence within the Navajo language for a northern origin to this people.
Sapir was wrong* about some things, but no one seems to doubt he was a pretty serious linguist.
How about Michael E. Krauss?
After completing a dissertation on Gaelic languages Krauss arrived in Alaska in 1960 to teach French at the University of Alaska.
Krauss’ largest contribution to language documentation is his work on Eyak, which began in 1961. Eyak was then already the most endangered of the Alaskan languages, and Krauss’ work is all the more notable considering that it represents what today might be considered salvage linguistics. While some Eyak data had been previously available, they were overlooked by previous scholars, including Edward Sapir. However, Eyak proved to be a crucial missing link for historical linguistics, being equally closely related to neighboring Ahtna and to distant Navajo. With good Eyak data it became possible to establish the existence of the Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit language family, though phonological evidence for links to Haida remained elusive.
If anyone makes any progress on native American language classifications while under precautionary self-quarantine, let us know
* I’m just teasing poor Sapir here, I don’t think it’s fair to “blame” him exactly for the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” which maybe isn’t even wrong, and as far as I can tell it was Whorf not Sapir who misunderstood Hopi
Reading up on the New Orleans classic Iko Iko, made famous by the Dixie Cups, I find myself reading about Mobilian Jargon.
Mobilian Jargon (also Mobilian trade language, Mobilian Trade Jargon, Chickasaw–Choctaw trade language, Yamá) was a pidgin used as a lingua franca among Native American groups living along the Gulf of Mexico around the time of European settlement of the region. It was the main language among Indian tribes in this area, mainly Louisiana. There is evidence indicating its existence as early as the late 17th to early 18th century. The Indian groups that are said to have used it were the Alabama, Apalachee, Biloxi, Chacato, Pakana, Pascagoula, Taensa, Tunica, Caddo, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Chitimacha, Natchez, and Ofo.
A possible meaning?:
Another possible translation interprets the third and fourth lines as:
Chokma finha an dan déyè
Chokma finha ane.
Chickasaw words “chokma” (“it’s good”) and “finha” (“very”), Creole “an dan déyè” from French Creole “an dans déyè” (“at the back”), and the Creole “ane” from the French “année” (“year”).
It’s very good at the rear
It’s a very good year.
What about the possible voodoo origin?
Louisiana Voodoo practitioners would recognize many aspects of the song as being about spirit possession. The practitioner, the horse, waves a flag representing a certain god to call that god into himself or herself. Setting a flag on fire is a curse. The man in green, who either changes personality or whose appearance is deceiving, would be recognized in Voodoo as possessed by a peaceful Rada spirit, inclining to green clothes and love magic. The man in red, who is being sent to kill, would likely be possessed by a vengeful Petwo spirit.
Haitian ethnologist Milo Rigaud published a transcription in 1953 of a Voodoo chant, “Crabigne Nago”. This chant to invoke the Voodoo mystère Ogou Shalodeh is similar to “Iko, Iko” in both pentameter and phones.
Liki, liki ô! Liki, liki ô!
Papa Ogou Jacoumon,
Papa Ogou Shalodeh.
More on the topic can be found in an article in a 2008 issue of Southern Anthropologist – we find ourselves amidst controversy:
Right from the beginning, Galloway (2006: 225-226) belittles the amount of linguistic information available, which she evidently takes as a justifi cation for not addressing specifi c linguistic and historical data that Crawford and I have accumulated and analyzed over the years. Although Galloway (2006: 228) recognizes my book of some four hundred pages as “the most thorough study of Mobilian jargon (sic) now available,” she oddly does not use a single piece of linguistic data from it in her own essay; nor does she review the substantial amount of sociohistorical documentation that both Crawford and I assembled for what anthropologists and linguists had long thought lost. Instead, Galloway (2006: 240) has curiously drawn on a short, seven-page essay by Kennith H. York (1982) for inspiration and “the insight of a sophisticated native speaker of Choctaw,” which demands a short appraisal
The linguistic origin of the song is the subject of a 2009 Offbeat article by Drew Hinshaw, who traces it to Ghana:
One afternoon, 1965, the three Louisianan sisters/cousins who gave you “Chapel of Love,” unaware that the studio’s tapes were still rolling, recorded for posterity two minutes of delightful historical intrigue that had been circulating in oral obscurity for generations unknowable. “Iko, Iko,” they called that tune. The English chunks of the record came from an all-too-obvious source—R&B singer “Sugar Boy” Crawford who claimed he never saw “just dues” from the top 40 hit—but the cryptic refrain of the Carnival standard is of a lost language, entirely mysterious: “Eh na, Iko, Iko-ahn-dé, jaco-mo-fi-na-né.” You know these words. “Sugar Boy” said he remembered them from the Mardi Gras Indian tribes of his salad days, while the girl group said they heard it from their grandma, Which is where the song begins: “My grandmaw and yo’ grandmaw….”
Reminded me of this cool, dialogue-less scene in Twelve Years A Slave which probably tells us about as much as can be known about the earliest origins of New Orleans music:
Not sure why I bothered writing this post, as I already texted with MMW about this topic (he suggested I look into Pidgin Delaware) but the oddest topics have lured readers to Helytimes, and really, what else is this site for but
1) to peer into the past until the view becomes a crazy fantastical kaleidoscope
2) to celebrate the rich weirdness of the world, and
3) to delight that there are people out there fighting over Mobilian Jargon?