Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

April 15, 2013

Languages thrive through sharing

TAHLEQUAH — A Cherokee-speaking jistu, rabbit, learned his lesson about stealing water on Friday in NSU’s Morgan Room as part of the 41st Annual Symposium on the American Indian.

The rabbit and his animal companions were part of a puppet show performed entirely in Cherokee by students from Wyman Kirk’s Cherokee language class at NSU, along with a few volunteers from the community.

This is the third year the play has been performed at the Symposium.

“It’s an adaptation of an old Cherokee story, the story of the rabbit and the well,” said Kirk. “This version is the product of a translation by a Cherokee class. They took the story and back-translated it into Cherokee, and the lines you hear are based on modifying it to turn it from a story into a play.”

Although many audience members were not Cherokee speakers, laughter broke out at all the right places – like when “kanuna,” a bullfrog, announced several times that he’d like to body-slam the rabbit, who kept insisting he wasn’t the one stealing water when everyone knew he was lying.

Kirk said one reason people could laugh was because of the story, but another was the audience interaction that takes place with any live entertainment.

“I think part of the reason people knew to laugh was because of the visual aspect, and it’s also because the story itself does have places where you really wouldn’t have to understand what’s going on to appreciate it,” he said. “But in this case, the actors got a case of the giggles, and it seems to be infectious, and that started the audience as well, so when those lines came up again, it was almost a cue for the audience.”

Even mistakes added to the hilarity.

“Especially in a script like this, people know the lines, but because they are a little nervous, things get mispronounced, and in a language that has tonal qualities like Cherokee, you get a lot of misstatements that are funny,” he said.

But human nature isn’t the only reason the play was funny for audience members who speak Cherokee or even understand only a little. Kirk said the language’s structure lends itself to certain kinds of humor.

“The Cherokee language, because of its diversity, is such a different language than English,” he said. “We have lots of different ways to express ideas. There are classification forms that determine what you’re talking about based on the shape of the object. The verb system is just much more rich. Three-fourths of the language is verbs, as opposed to a quarter of the language in English. Because of that, when expressing ideas, you can really make a lot of different puns, and you can make puns on many different levels.”

And even the humor of Cherokee has changed with time.

“There are native Cherokee puns, but then in the past 50 years, a lot of people make English-Cherokee puns, so they’ll say something in Cherokee that’s a pun of English but sounds stupid in Cherokee, but that’s why it’s funny,” said Kirk. “I think Cherokee gives you the opportunity to really branch out and express things humorously.”

Zachary Barnes, who read the part of the bullfrog, said there is a serious reason for putting on a funny play.

“It’s good to expand the use of the language,” he said. “Kids will see it and want to watch it. Last year, we did the play for the Cherokee Immersion School, and they really liked it. Just as long as you can keep understanding and using the language, it really helps.”

At the end of the play, jistu learned that water should be shared with everyone – just like language, if it is going to continue to thrive. This play was one way of doing just that.

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