Please Note: This journal contains a wide variety of stuff — complete stories, bits and pieces, commentary, and who-knows-what else. As is always the case these days, the material is protected by copyright. On the other hand, I publish it here to be shared. Feel free to pass it on. Just give me credit. Fair enough?
Pack Creek Ranch, San Juan County, Utah, U.S.A.
Second week of July, 2017
Stormy weather bringing wind, thunder, and downpours – cleaning the air of dust and pollen – and cooling the land from the recent heat wave.
The heat will be back . . .
Here’s an encounter with a stranger – about seeing someone else in the framework of stereotypes, while forgetting that I am also a stereotype.
Sitting at the bar in Woody’s Tavern in Mob, Utah.
I’m in for a cold beer on a heat-wave afternoon.
The man sitting next to me is wearing a cowboy hat, jeans, cowboy boots, and a
T shirt with the Canadian Flag on it.
“Let me guess . . . you’re Canadian.”
He laughed. “No kidding – you have a sharp eye.”
“This is going to seem stupid, but it’s a joke – You don’t look Canadian.”
“Right – who knows what a Canadian looks like? What do I look like I am?”
“Well, to be honest, and stick to local stereotypes, you look Navajo. You could be right off the reservation with your clothes and facial features.”
“Ha – you’re closer than you imagine. I’m Inuit – you’d say Eskimo – but I’d also say I’m paleo-Canadian – First Nation – First people – before there was a Canada.”
“Wow! Never met an Inuit. What brings you here?”
“Same as you – beer. But I’m in Utah because I’m a linguistic historian – University of British Columbia. The Navajo language is essentially Athabascan – the language of the natives of northeastern Alaska.
It’s part of a family of languages technically referred to now as Dine – which is what the Navajos call the language they speak.
I’m here doing research.
I like to say I’m visiting my distant cousins to hear them talk.”
“I thought the Navajos say they were always here – a unique people – with a unique language.”
“Well, yes, that’s what they say. It’s a spiritual identity for them.
But academics like me say the Navajos have more in common with the natives of eastern Siberia and the Artic. Their ancestors walked over in the inter-glacial period and just kept going south. They were smarter than we Inuits who stayed in the snow. They went where it was warmer. Makes for interesting conversation when I interview Navajos. They really raise their eyebrows when I talk like that.”
“I can imagine. Since your field is linguistics and you are an Inuit, I want to ask you another stupid question. It’s commonly said that White People have only one word for snow, but the Eskimos have many – maybe 50. Is that true?”
He laughed. “Well, yes and no.”
“We Eskimos like to say that story originated a long, long time ago when Franz Boaz, the anthropologist, asked a First Nations Elder about names of snow. And the Elder said that there were many. And he gave the anthropologist a list of words the anthropologist couldn’t spell, much less pronounce.
But . . . If you translate the words, they are: “That snow – and the snow over there, and the snow way out there, and the snow that’s falling now, and on and on.
The Elder meant it was all snow. It was a joke on the White man. Of course there are many kinds of snow, but they all require a modifier – wet snow, dry snow, icy snow and so on. It’s a matter of linguistic structure and context.”
“Well, that settles that.
You remind me of a discussion I was having about the English word, love.
Somewhere I read that ancient Sanskrit has ninety-six words for love – that Persian has eighty – Greek three – but English has only one.
We say I love my dog, I love your shoes, I love Paris, I love sushi, I love my Mom and on and on. One word for a strong feeling of affection or approval for almost anything. We say we fall into love and fall out of love and sing about love and write poetry about love, but there’s just that one word for what we’re talking about – and we assume everybody else knows what we mean.”
“Of course. If you were a linguistic historian, you would not be so confused.
All language is contextual – has meaning within the circumstances. Think of the word love as a short-hand signifier of strong positive feelings. A word-peg on which we hang all kinds of modifiers.
Don’t overthink it. Trust other people to know what you mean.
Or make up a new word. It’s permitted.
Language is not a prison – it’s always loosey-goosey – always in flux.
And it’s always OK to love almost anything.”
“Thanks. You’ve enlightened me. Can I buy you another beer?”
“I’d love one.”