“I was going to say he’s a piece of work, but that might not translate too well. Is that all right, if I call you a ‘piece of work’?” - President George W. Bush to Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg, Washington, D.C., June 20, 2005.

Lexis is linguistics terminology for words - their choice and appropriateness in a text. Many would agree that George W. Bush has created his own lexicon, much to his critics’ delight.

But where do words really come from, particularly when technological advances have created so many new “things” to be named?

New words are called neologisms – usually the combination of two words put together, but when complete have a whole new meaning. For instance, “snarky” is an adjective describing a witty mannerism, personality, or behavior that is a combination of sarcasm and cynicism. It’s usually accepted as a complimentary term. Snark is sometimes mistaken for a snotty or arrogant attitude (www.urbandictionary.com).

Dennis Sixkiller and Anna Huckaby are on the Cherokee Nation Language Advisory Council, whose responsibility is to preserve the Cherokee language and make up Cherokee neologisms for newer English words like laptop, computer and dinosaur. Both are fluent in their native language: Sixkiller has his own Cherokee language radio show; Huckaby is the language coordinator for the tribe’s Cultural Resource Center, as well as being a translator and interpreter.

During a conference call, the pair explained the process of making “new” Cherokee words.

“We have put more than 9,000 words on the Cherokee Nation Web site,” said Huckaby. “Some of the new words are available there.”

Cherokee is a very descriptive language, according to Sixkiller, so many new words will have a Cherokee phrase as its meaning.

“We use a combination of the Cherokee syllabary [alphabet] and language,” said Sixkiller. “Sometimes, we have to use several Cherokee words to appropriately describe something. The English translation of the Cherokee word for pizza means ‘something on top.’”

Cherokees have several ways of saying the same thing.

“We have three or five different ways to say ‘car,’” said Sixkiller, who then rattled off several Cherokee words, with their English counterparts – including wagon, rubber tires and something you ride in.

Sixkiller said the Cherokee language is fraught with herenyms - words spelled the same but with very different meanings.

“The spelling for ‘water’ and ‘salt’ are the same in the Cherokee syllabary,” said Sixkiller. “But they’re pronounced differently, as are ‘winter’ and ‘bone.’”

The language also has its own humorous flaws.

“The phrase ‘limb falls off a tree’ is the same as ‘turkey falls off a tree,’” said Sixkiller. “It can be funny, sometimes.”

One new word Sixkiller may be interested in developing is “three-pointer.” When the Sequoyah High School boys’ and girls’ basketball teams played in the state tournament this year, Sixkiller took his radio show on the road, calling the game in Cherokee for listeners back home. It was then they discovered they didn’t have a word for a three-point goal.

Wyman Kirk, coordinator for the Cherokee degree program at Northeastern State University, explained that linguistically, Cherokee is a fundamentally different language than English.

“In English, you say ‘I am working,’ and that sentence consists of three words,” said Kirk. “In Cherokee,the same idea is all one word, ‘dagilvwisdaneha.’ In this word, you have several parts that tell you who is doing it, what they are doing and when they did it. But you can’t separate out those parts like you can in English - in other words, in Cherokee you build mostly off the verb to make sentences, to take meaning.”

Cherokee has nouns and adjectives, but the language is driven by the verbs, according to Kirk.

“Brad Anderson, a linguist, came up with ‘yiwidogawonisisidolidoha,’ or ‘S/he is going away randomly making identical speeches from place to place,” said Kirk. “It was commented that this could be said with a politician who is making the same campaign speech in all these different places.”

According to Kirk, the verb in the word is “woni.” The rest of the word tells who, when, what, where, etc.

“One other note on Cherokee: I would say the major difference, on a very practical level, between Cherokee and English is that Cherokee requires a focus on the physical nature of the world,” said Kirk. “It requires a degree or precision not seen in English. This is especially seen in the examples of the classification verbs.”

One example Kirk used is “ukwoluga,” meaning, “She has not had any luck hunting.”

“It’s my favorite verb,” said Kirk. “I mean, how many languages specifically have a verb, word or concept dealing with success at hunting? Certainly not English. The great thing about this verb is that it had adapted to modern life. People now use it to say something like, ‘She did not have any luck at the casino,’ or ‘Kvsino ukwoluga.’”

Kirk has found Cherokee to be lacking in terms of endearment.

“Someone once told me Cherokee is an amazing language, but it’s not a very romantic one,” said Kirk. “By that, he meant there’s no proper way to say things like ‘honey,’ ‘sweetheart’ and ‘sweetie,’ all of these terms of endearment. It’s just an interesting point about the language; what it lacks in endearment, it makes up for by way of exactness in these forms. So, although you may not say, ‘I really love you, sweetiekins!’ in Cherokee (and one may question why this started in English, and many more might wish it to go away), you would say ‘I am careful and stingy with your existence,’ or ‘gvgeyuha.’”

Author Adam Jacot de Boinod recently published “The Meaning of Tingo” - a collection of words and phrases from around the world.

In an interview with BBC News, de Boinod shared his enthusiasm for language.

“What I’m really trying to do is celebrate the joy of foreign words in a totally unjudgmental way,” de Boinod told BBC. “And say that, while English is a great language, one shouldn’t be surprised there are many others having, as they do, words with no English equivalent.”

While pouring over 280 dictionaries and 140 Web sites, de Boinod has uncovered words like “tingo,” Rapanui for a person who borrows items from a friend, one by one, until everything’s gone; and “kummerspeck,” a German word which literally means “grief bacon” - it’s the word Germans use to desribe a weight gained from emotion-related overeating.

According to de Boinod, Hawaiins have 108 words for sweet potato, 65 for fishing nets and 47 for banana.

Paula Arriaga, Spanish teacher at Keys High School, could be considered a “word nerd.”

“I love finding the origins of words,” said Arriaga. “Often, that’s how I begin teaching new students Spanish, by teaching them what English words have come from Spanish. So many times words we consider to be English have a history in another language.”

Arriaga said the English have been stealing words since time out of mind.

“The English language developed on a very small island [Great Britain],” said Arriaga. “They had no words for cattle ranching or many implements used on a ranch, so they stole them from Spanish words. For instance, ‘Ranch’ comes from the Spanish ‘ranchero’ and ‘lariat’ comes from ‘lariata.’”

Words adapted from other languages are called cognates, she said.

“Many languages overlap,” said Arriaga. “This is why English is so hard to learn, English words have been adapted from many romance languages, only their adaptations sometimes take on new meanings, as well as different spellings.”

Spanish words adapted by the English primarily have root meanings in ranching and war.

“Considering the English were constantly at war with the Spanish and the French,” said Arriaga. “Many English legal terms are derived from French words, because for a time the court systems were run by the French.”

Times are changing, though, and Arriaga has noticed the difference.

“At one time, English was taking words from so many other cultures,” said Arriaga. “Now, English is influencing other dialects and languages. The French language continues to shrink, so much so they’ve enacted laws protecting it. I sometimes don’t understand why we have a need to make English the national language; it’s not as if English will ever die.”

The BBC invited readers to contribute their favorite unusual words following the interview with de Boinod.

“My favourite is the Spanish for handcuffs, ‘esposas,’ ‘mi esposa’ means ‘my wife.’ So ‘mi esposa, mis esposas’ means ‘my wife, my handcuffs,” commented Ben from Bristol, UK.

Nicholas Jones, of Cambridge, England, enjoys the Icelandic language, and commented on the BBC story.

“So far as I’m aware, no other language has anything equivalent to the Icelandic ‘setja upp gestaspjot,’ a verbal phrase denoting the action taken by a cat when cleaning itself, with its body curled tightly in a circle and one back leg sticking directly up in the air,” said Jones. “Literally, it means ‘put up a guest spear,’ and when a cat was seen doing this, it was supposed to indicate that visitors would be turning up.”

You’re invited

Those interested in learning how the Cherokee language is preserved and developed are invited to the next meeting of the Cherokee Nation Language Advisory Council at 1 p.m., Thursday, April 20, at the Cultural Resource Center. With the exception of April, meetings are held at 3:30 p.m. the third Thursday of the month.

Learn more

For those interested in looking up the Cherokee equivalent to English words, go to www.cherokee.org and click on Dikaneisdi, Cherokee for “word list.”


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