Lifestyle

Wednesday, Feb 08 2012 08:06 PM

Indian Talk: traditional names for Tehachapi birds

Related Photos

Northern Mockingbird- Ya-bi

Raven (above) and Golden Eagle- Ataakaz and Muhni

Mourning Dove- Hoy-yov

Red-tailed Hawk- Kwa-nahzi

Woodpecker- Ta-tar-ah-geh-eb

California Quail- Taara

The Nüwa (Kawaiisu) Indian people of the Tehachapi Mountains and surrounding region often named the creatures with whom they shared the Earth in the most logical way: the name itself would be an approximation of the sound that animal made. The term used to describe this type of name is onomatopoeia, that strange word that is used to weed out the less gifted competitors in spelling bees across the English-speaking world.

English has many onomatopoeias of its own, like "ribbit" for the call of a frog, "quack" for the sound a duck makes or "meow" for the speech of a cat. Using terms like these as the proper names of animals is particularly useful for languages like Nüwa, which were traditionally unwritten. It was easy for a Nüwa child to remember that Wogita was the name of a Pacific Chorus Frog, because in the evenings you could hear the male frogs saying their name over and over: "wog-it, wog-it, wog-it."

The English language has derived some common bird names from the sound the birds make as well, such as chickadee, killdeer and Bobwhite quail.

Not all Nüwa bird and animal names are onomatopoeic, of course, but most are logical, descriptive or intuitive in some way. Oral languages tend to be this way, because when speakers have to carry the entire language in their heads, without a means of writing it down, then strange, difficult or illogical words tend to be forgotten.

This week I'm sharing a dozen different bird names from the Nuwa language of the original Tehachapi residents. Don't be intimidated by the unfamiliar appearance of the words -- if you follow the pronunciation suggestions, they're really not hard to say. Teach yourself some of these terms, and you'll be speaking the ancient dialect of the Tehachapi Mountains.

I use these names whenever I see or hear these common birds, and it creates a connection through time to the Ita-BOOM-eh, the Oldtimers or First Ones. I have become fluent in the Nüwa language, with the help of Lucille Girado Hicks, Luther Girado, Betty Girado and others, but even when I only knew a few Kawaiisu words, I found that using them was fun, enriching, and honored those who came before us.

Have a good week.

JON HAMMOND has written for the Tehachapi News for more than 30 years.

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