A friend of mine posted this on Facebook today. Of course, I found it very interesting. I grew up bilingual (English and French) and I’ve always known about words in both languages that couldn’t easily be translated into or even explained in the other language. Sometimes they can be translated but the nuance (one of my favourite words) wasn’t quite the same, or the colloquial use of the word was different. If this happens between two relatively similar languages that grew out of the same broad region (western Europe) imagine how it is between languages that are further apart and that are situated in vastly different cultural settings.
As I struggle to learn basic Eeyou, one of the biggest challenges is adjusting to the language structure. Whereas I’m used to languages that take the form of stringing words together to form sentences, Eeyou has words that basically ARE phrases. A one or two syllable term is sometimes translated, by local people and in lexicons, using an entire phrase in English! Although this makes it hard for me as a non-Native speaker, I think it’s awfully beautiful. Both complex and simple. Both eloquent and practical. And so richly intertwined with local worldview.
The Eeyou people have worked hard to preserve their language. Pretty much everyone in town under the age of 60 or so seem to speak English but their primary way of communicating with each other at work, on the street and on the radio is Eeyou. The kids in my classes switch back and forth from speaking English with me and Eeyou with each other. Yet as a friend of mine pointed out, there are words/phrases that are getting lost because only a few Elders are still alive that experienced the reality within which these words or phrases were brought to life. An example that he painstakingly taught me one year at his camp was aawitdaskupedjeenanstyooge (I’m spelling it like it sounds to my ears). This refers to a very specific location and context that many people under a certain age haven’t experienced. When a hunter (almost always male here) is headed back to his camp from a hunting trip in the winter, he would stop to make tea and have a cigarette at a spot of land in between two frozen lakes. That spot, in this particular context and during this particular activity, is referred to as aawitdaskupedjeenanstyooge. At least, that is what I understood. If anyone reading this has corrections to make to the explanation, or additional insight, please don’t hesitate to write it down in the comments section!
When we discussed this term, we talked about how they could teach it to kids in school, or he could teach me how to pronounce it, but without experiencing the context, the meaning would never be fully embodied. As interesting as it is to me, and as vivid as my imagination is, the word will never achieve its full meaning coming from my mouth or going into my ears. And this, of course, led to a discussion about how best to teach Eeyou language and tradition to youths. The Cree culture and language courses that they have at the school at all levels are fantastic and important. But without the lived experience of hearing and speaking the language in its natural habitat, will the youth attain a visceral understanding of it?
On a lighter note, one of my favourite words in Eeyou has always been agudah (again, spelled like I hear it and not how many people actually spell it, although there are a couple of variations that I’ve seen). I always thought it was cute. I like the sound. At the most basic level, it means “OK” and I’ve heard people use it in very similar ways. For example, I’ve overheard people joking and laughing and saying “agudah agudah” in the same way that many North American English speakers say “OK, OK!” really fast in different contexts. However, with time I came to understand that agudah is also used as a way to end a conversation. Often, people will say “agudah, bye” before hanging up the phone or leaving, much like I’ve grown up to say “OK, bye” in both English and French. But it also seems to be a way for a person to indicate that a conversation has gone as far as it can at this time. Said firmly, even without a “bye” it seems (to me) to mean: OK, I’m done/I’ve said everything I have to say/You can go now/our business here is done for now/I have something else I have to do now. Of course, this could be my own interpretation but I certainly get that vibe.
I’ve been practicing the few phrases that I know with people that I meet and with my students. The reaction is usually laughter but, as the students and another teacher explained, they’re not laughing at me. One student said it’s just a reaction they have because they don’t usually expect to hear Eeyou come out of a white person’s mouth. Also, people around here tend to laugh to express good humour, not necessarily at someone’s expense. In any case, it sure gets their attention!