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Teachings from the Tree of Life: Why Bears Never Speak Backward but Some Indians Do

Updated: May 30

Makwa-giizis (Bear Moon), February 24, 2024

 

Bezhig Wendaamowin ("Unity of Thought") painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
Bezhig Wendaamowin ("Unity of Thought")© 2024 Zhaawano Giizhik
 

"Ojibwe (in Minnesota) is severely endangered and is a language spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.” 
- UNESCO, 2010.
"If you want to talk like a bear, I hope you're a bear, not a person!"
- Jessie Cree, Turtle Mountain elder
"You may ask yourself from time to time, why is it so important to learn the language the right way? Meaning: The SOUND-oriented, spiritually rich language that was spoken in the old days, not the modern reverse way of speaking and writing Ojibwe based on strict GRAMMAR rules? I think the answer is that, despite your estrangement with the old ways of your ancestors, learning the language in a spiritual, sound-oriented context reconnects you with what and whom you thought you lost, and ensures that you will be recognized by the gete-ayaa'ag when it is time to leave this world and return home.
The ancestors have ears, you know."
- Zhaawano Giizhik
"Christianity is the sword that severed the Indigenous pathway. We fell into the open wound, and this is what happened to many of our harmed and broken elders to adopt into the “new” way...Many believe that our elders suffered, it’s true, but the fact remains to this day that it is our children that are the sacrifice."
- Michel Sutherland, Inino elder
 

Boozhoo. Last Wednesday I fell down the stairs. Bruised my shoulder and broke a couple of ribs. Ouch. I need to recover and so there's not much I can do except think a little and write. Inspired by a quote I read somewhere, my mind started wandering and as I tried all kinds of words to get my mind back, the words "syntax" and "backward" popped up in my mind.


The quote that started it: "They took our languages. Now they're selling it back to us through programs and university courses..."


And now, while musing about Ojibwe syntax, or word order, my mind finally comes to a halt. I realize how fortunate I am to have met a few elder Indigenous people whose first language is Ojibwemowin and Anishininimowin. As I listen to them speak, I realize the once so deep structure of the old language is dying with the demise of the old ways. I notice that when forming a sentence, they use a different word order. Almost like how we would form a sentence in English, but opposite. Almost in perfect reverse order!


Also, I have profited, and still profit, a great deal from the truly unparalleled knowledge that my Jewish/Ainu friend Charles J. Lippert has of Ojibwe grammar and etymology and the traditional history of the Anishinaabe Peoples. His opinions and advice on cultural and language matters have been of invaluable help in keeping me focused on the details of most of the Anishinaabe-related stories and posts I have written so far, and I am most grateful to him.


Now, back to Ojibwe syntax (word order).


 
Syntax: The arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.
- Oxford languages
 

An Ojibwe friend, Jesse Cree from Mikinaakwajiw (Turtle Mountain, North Dakota) once said to me:

“Most of the Ojibwe words (used to be) put together in opposite or reversal from English.” I think he is right. The more I think about it, the more I suspect modern speakers – especially those with an academic background – use English as the basis for the Ojibwe language. This is one of the reasons I am not in favor of using artificial grammar rules like the animate/inanimate dichotomy, no matter what the Ojibwe "textbook" teachers say. Making a distinction between animate and inanimate words is to overlook the fact that to the old people everything was alive and thus animate. Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language, used to be a non-written, dynamic language with a very context-driven, fluid set of grammar rules – as fluid as life itself. Modern Ojibwe textbook teachers, however, are caught up in their own rigid grammar rules they created and almost everyone follows them blindly. They get mad at me, and also at my friends from the bush and the mountain, for challenging their grammar rules. But I believe the Ojibwe language cannot be directly tied to the English language with impunity. The modern Ojibwe textbook teachers turn Anishinaabemowin into an empty shell, void of meaning and soul, and it bothers me. So many layers of meaning in the old language, at one time demonstrating a truly unequaled cultural richness and depth, are getting lost forever.


Maamawi wiiji'ididaa dazhiikamang Anishinaabemowin. Biinitoodaa gidinwewininaan.
Let's work together revitalizing Ojibwe. Let's decolonize our language!

True, at first sight the animate/inanimate dichotomy makes it all more "convenient" for learners of Anishinaabemowin. However, gidinwewininaan (our language) is not the same as English or French or any other European language. My point is, why approach gidinwewininaan in a pure technical way and use artificial grammatical distinctions knowing that such doesn't do justice to its depth and richness? No matter how you look at it: Inanimate means "not alive." But in the gete-ayaa'ag perception "inanimate" was simply unheard of. If one really wants to understand their culture, it should be understood that it is the language that reflects everything that we're about, everything about where we have been, and everything about where we're heading.


Nothing is inanimate. To use an artificial grammar term to denote something that is alive is an abomination. Grammar rules should always reflect real life. Squeezing artificial grammar rules into anishinaabemowin doesn't do justice to a language so full of life and spirit. It's like squeezing into ill fitting shoes. Bimaadad is as animate as bimaadizi. Just differently, seldom permanently. One (bimaadad) denotes a state of being alive that could be described in English as passive or stative, the other (bimaadizi) reflects aliveness that could be described as "active in the here and now." But even these English qualifications do not fully cover the deeper meaning and finesse of the two ways of living/being that are in the anishinaabemowin. European thought and grammar just fall short when one wants to fully grasp the spirit and expressiveness of anishinaabemowin.


You may ask yourself from time to time, why is it so important to learn the language the right way? Meaning: The SOUND-oriented, spiritually rich language that was spoken in the old days, not the modern reverse way of speaking and writing Ojibwe based on strict GRAMMAR rules? I think the answer is that, despite your estrangement with the ways of your ancestors, learning the language in a spiritual, sound-oriented context reconnects you with what and whom you thought you lost, and ensures that you are still recognizable by the gete-ayaa'ag when it is time to leave this world and return home.


The ancestors have ears, you know.


So, again, and I will say it again, and again if I have to: Squeezing our languages into western education system is not a good idea. European-based linguistic dichotomies imprison our understanding of our own linguistic concepts, and, as a result, our understanding of ourselves as a People.


It is high time then, that teachers start breaking the many fixed patterns of thought and concepts that the Zhaagaanaashag (English) have imposed on the language doesn't do justice to its spiritual depth and richness.


Maamawi wiiji'ididaa dazhiikamang gidinwewininaan. Biinitoodaa gidinwewininaan.

Let's work together revitalizing our language. Let's decolonize our language!


 
Anishinaabemowin: A language which is part of the Algonquian language family, where varying dialects of Anishinaabemowin are spoken throughout Michigan, Wisconsin,  Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana in the United States, and Québec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia in Canada.  The term often used to describe the language of the Ojibweg specifically, can also be used to describe a language spoken by the Anishininiwag (Oji-Cree), Odaawaag, Bodewadmig, and other related Algonquian speaking tribes. Ojibwemowin, sometimes used interchangeably with Anishinaabemowin, refers specifically to the language spoken by the Ojibwe people. Anishininimowin,  which in fact is an Anishinaabe language, is the language spoken by the Anishininiwag/Oji-Cree. It is closely related to the Ojibwe language (and as such even classified as an Ojibwemowin dialect) , yet has a different literary tradition based in Cree, and several phonological and grammatical differences.
Cree: Part of the Algonquian language family, one of the most widely spoken Indigenous languages in Canada and the US. Spoken by the Ininewak (Cree), the language can be categorized into the following dialects:  
Nêhiyawêwin ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ (Plains Cree)
Nīhithawīwin ᓃᐦᐃᖬᐑᐏᐣ (Woods Cree)
Nêhinawêwin ᓀᐦᐃᓇᐌᐎᐣ (Western Swampy Cree)
Ininîmowin ᐃᓂᓃᒧᐎᓐ (Eastern Swampy Cree)
Ililîmowin ᐃᓕᓖᒧᐎᓐ (Moose Cree)
Iyiniu-Ayamiwin ᐄᓅ ᐊᔨᒨᓐ (Southern East Cree)
Iyiyiu-Ayamiwin ᐄᔨᔫ ᐊᔨᒨᓐ (Northern East Cree)
Nehirâmowin (Atikamekw)
Nehlueun (Western Montagnais, Piyekwâkamî dialect)
Ilnu-Aimûn (Western Montagnais, Betsiamites dialect)
Innu-Aimûn (Eastern Montagnais)

 

Another friend of mine, Michel Sutherland from the Inino/ Nishnawbe Aski Nation of Fort Albany, Northeastern Ontario, once told me the old ones say the IRS (Indian Residential School Indians) as well as the "textbook Indians" (those who use a modern grammar based on English) speak "upside down."


He told me, "We view the geographical map from the north end of the map. I was taught to read the map from and on the south side, like my teachers said… the proper way." Then, laughing, " I now sit on the Northern position.... And so, yes, I heard our old people say… the IRS, the so-called… educated, speak upside down!"


The way my Ojibwe and Inino (Cree) friends from the mountains and bush of North Dakota and Ontario speak tells me that you can say what you want to in the old language, it doesn't have to be tied to English, as long as there’s agreement with your words. The way the old people talked, they never bothered with strict grammar rules. Their sense of word order was dynamic and when they spoke, they did not use the animate/inanimate dichotomy of the modern textbook teachers. Ojibwe, Cree, and Oji-Cree are highly descriptive and verb-action-based languages as they rely on verbs (instead of nouns) to convey meaning, and fluid too, since they switch effortless switches from one category of aliveness to another; the antithesis "animate versus inanimate" was a strange, foreign concept before English grammar rules entered the stage. When you look at word-formation you will find that Anishinaabemowin is highly polysynthetic, since it exhibits a great deal of synthesis and a very high morpheme-to-word ratio. In Ojibwe, each syllable of a word means something (a single word may function as a whole sentence) and when you want to convey a thought, sounds and morphs ("in-between-sounds") are more important than grammar rules. There is verbal phrasing and pronouncing of the words and sentences that is different than how the English tone is used.


Phonetics (speech sound) and grammar can't exist without each other. Neither is phonetics a substitute for grammar. It's a tool to understand how the words are put together. It's a means for how the words sound together. There is nothing worse than a grammatical sentence that doesn't sound right.

I agree with Elder Jessie Cree when he said: "English language came here after Ojibwa was already here. This is why we must make it available to know the old way of speaking and learning it faster and easier than English grammarians do. Most are taught the Ojibwa language by supporting the English grammar. It should be the other way around. If I talk Ojibwa why would I support the English language?"


Haw sa. The more I listen to Elder first-language speakers the more I realize that learning to speak and write the language on a pure technical and artificial level, based on English grammar rules, isn't enough. Anishinaabemowin is a language of the heart more than of the head. Squeezing gidinwewininaan, our Indigenous languages, into Western education system can be counterproductive since it erases the language morphology and our unique thinking system. Our Elders do not understand the young anymore and the young do not understand the Elders when they speak the language. It is time to develop teaching methods and lesson plans emphasizing speech sound instead of rigid grammar rules. It is high time to turn the tide. The Elders aren't getting any younger, there is no time to lose.


 

Wiindamawewiziwin ("Communication") painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
Wiindamawewiziwin ("Communication") ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik
 
Morpheme vs. phoneme: What's the difference?
In linguistics, morpheme refers to a basic unit of meaning, while phoneme refers to a basic unit of sound. A morpheme is the smallest part of a word that still has its own independent meaning (for example, “aadizooken” (tell a story!) has two morphemes, “aadizooke” and “n”). A phoneme is an independent sound that creates a contrast in meaning (for example, in Anishinaabemowin, “g” and “k,” as in “giizhig” (sky or day) and “giizhik,” (cedar tree) are different phonemes because they cause a change in meaning).

All words on Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language, are made of sound (phonemes) and meaning (morphemes). The best way to learn the language is to sound out the meaning, which involves learning careful pronunciation and, not unimportantly, recognizing how sounds create meaning. For example, “minotaagwad” means "it sounds good." "Itaagwad" is a word-final meaning it is heard; mino is a prefix meaning "good" or "well." The phonemes “min(w)” and “o” come together to make the morpheme “mino” which typically implies positive goodness when it comes at the front of a word-final or verb. It is never used as a word alone and the meaning it has in Anishinaabemowin has no exact equivalence in another language, so learning to hear and say it correctly is crucial.
 

Let's take a closer look at how important a small speech sound ("phone") can be in Ojibwe language.


An example. When you want to say, "Is that right?" or "Do you agree?" most Anishinaabemowin speakers (particularly new learners) would say "geget ina." Geget means sure, certainly, really, indeed; ina is a yes/no question word. Geget ina is, grammatically speaking, a perfectly proper (but not necessarily correct) way to say it, and the majority of modern language teachers, who are taught to think along strict grammar rules, will tell you this. However, elder speakers raised in a traditional Ojibwe environment (and thus immersed in the old language) know something most modern teachers are not aware of (or perhaps don't find important enough to mention). To them, one single sound, no matter how small, can make a world of difference. To them, there is a big difference between "geget ina" and "gegetina." Ina, to them, denotes "our (mine and your) agreement " where tina means "your agreement." So, geget ina means "is that right for US?" while gegetina (pronounced as one word, in one breath so to speak) means "is that right for YOU?" thus making it a phrase of courtesy. To use tina ("tin-nuh") is more respectable because it carries the T from gegeT. Carrying the last letter to match the next word gives the expression a sense of cordiality. Thus, SOUND proves to be more important than following grammatically "correct" word patterns...


Learning to speak and write your Indigenous language on a pure technical and artificial level, based on English grammar rules, isn't enough. Squeezing gidinwewininaan into Western education system can even be counterproductive since it erases the language morphology and our unique thinking system. Our Elders do not understand the young anymore and the young do not understand the Elders when they speak the language. It is time to develop teaching methods and lesson plans emphasizing speech sound instead of rigid grammar rules. It is high time to turn the tide. The Elders aren't getting any younger, there is no time to lose.

Small but essential details like these got lost in the modern teaching/learning approach of the grammar/collegiate institutions in the US and Canada. That's because nowadays the emphasis is no longer on sound, but on grammar. What does this example tell us? It tells us that, if we want to express, and safeguard, the richness of Anishinaabemowin, a phonetic and phonic approach to the language is essential. Morphemes (the smallest units of language that carry meaning) and phonemes (a set of speech sounds that can distinguish one word from another) are essential to Anishinaabemowin. The richness of our speech is determined by how we use the richness of inwewin, the language. After all, Anishinaabemowin is a SPIRITUAL language where the concept of INCLUSIVENES (the establishment of relationships with one's community and the spirits and an effort to make sense and order of the world) is central. So, In learning correct Ojibwe, sounds do not depend on grammar, yet grammar should always depend on sounds ("phones").


This is an essential rule of thumb in Anishinaabe/Ojibwe language learning: Whatever it is you want to say or write, it has to sound right.


It has to SOUND right.


 
Polysinthetic: Denoting or relating to a language characterized by complex words consisting of several morphemes, in which a single word may function as a whole sentence. Many North and South American languages are polysynthetic.
- Oxford languages
 

"Singing With the Stones" painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"The little people live beneath the earth (in a ground house)..." © 2023-2024 Zhaawano Giizhik
 

As for syntax: I think it makes sense to take a close look at the word order and to re-orientate to the way Ojibwemowin and Anishininimowin was spoken before English worldview and grammar rules entered the stage and made them into backward (in the sense of "syntactically opposite") languages. I also suspect the similarities between Ojibwemowin (particularly the northern dialects) and Metis are many. Jesse once told me that only the Metis mix their language with basically French with a little Ininewak and English flavor. I wonder if the "broken English structure" of the Metis is closer to the structure of Ojibwemowin than the way it's being taught in collegiate programs?


This is a very essential difference in understanding the language and I believe it is important that we must get over this hurdle with the new age language speakers. "Correct" grammar or not; a sound means something. In fact, sounds mean everything since they do not follow syntax rules or are subjected to fixed grammatical structures.

During the long conversations with my friends, I have come to understand that syntax of modern, textbook Ojibwe is an (almost) complete reversion of the way sentences were arranged in the old language. Old first-language speakers can still understand the ungrammatical sentences their parents and grandparents spoke. Something the learned second-language speakers cannot understand when they listen to the old ones speak. This is a very essential difference in understanding the language and I believe it is important that we must get over this hurdle with the new age language speakers. "Correct" grammar or not; a sound means something. In fact, sounds mean everything since they do not follow syntax rules or are subjected to fixed grammatical structures.


Mikinaakwajiwinini Elder Jessie Cree once once said to me: "Most second-language Ojibwe speakers are stuck on the train in grammar city not seeing the rest of the world."


What an expressive way to hit the nail on the head!


As for grammatical word order, I think it is safe to say that, in practice, Ojibwe syntax order (at least, in transitive constructions) is typically, but not always, Verb-Object-Subject (VOS). As Ojibwemowin is highly synthetic, word order and sentence structure are relatively free, since a great deal of information is already encoded onto the verb. The subject can go before or after the verb, as can the object (SV or VS); however, the subject and the object together cannot go before the verb. A thumb of rule is that whichever participant is deemed more important or in-focus by the speaker is placed first, before the verb, and the less important participant follows the verb. Additionally, a VS (verb–subject) order is typically used when subjects are specified with separate nominals or pronouns.


Let me give an example:


When I want to say in Ojibwe "The little people live in a ground house" (see the above illustration, a painting featuring memegwesiwag, "magic little people.")


One way of saying it would be: Daawag anaamakamig akiiwigaaning iniw memegwesiwag.


Word order: They-live underground in-a-groundhouse- those- little-people. The order is VS (verb-subject).


Subject-verb (SV) and Subject-verb-object (SVO) are typical syntax orders in English (although the order depends on the structure and complexity of the sentence).


An example. Suppose I want to say: Some little people live under the ground. How is Ojibwe apexing accomplished? When I’d use English SV syntax structure, I’d say something like Memegwesiwag bimaadiziwag anaamakamig (or akiiwigamigong) The little people-live-beneath the ground/in the earth house). In the reverse order, however, you would turn the sentence structure more or less backward. Anaamakamig aanind daawag iniw memegwesiwag . Word order: Anaamakamig/ aanind/ daawag/ iniw/memegwesiwag. Beneath-earth/ some/ they-reside/ those/little-people.


So, the way I said it, the locative noun (beneath the earth) comes first, then the verb (live), then the subject of the verb (little people). Anaamakamig/ aanind/ daawag/ iniw/memegwesiwag. Beneath-earth/ some/ they-reside/ those/little-people.


As you can see, the structure of the last sentence is way different from English. VS instead of SV


This means a COMPLETE inversion ( SV English<> VS Ojibwe). A complete inversion is not ALWAYS the case, but it does look like in both languages the V (and O) and S are being "hustled" a lot compared to each other.


So yeah, my friends are not far from the truth when they say that Ojibwe has become a "backward/upside down" language.


Ojibwemowin is strongly verb-based and since a great deal of information is already encoded onto the verb, the word order is relatively free. The subject can go before or after the verb, as can the object. Sentence apexing works as follows: Word order with the more important apex element first, and decreasing in importance as the sentence progresses.

Now, you may wonder, did the old people always use a certain word order, one that was written in stone? They most certainly did not. To them, syntax was a dynamic, fluid process which depended on the context of what they wanted to convey. Of course, word order also depends on what it is you want to emphasize in a sentence.


A summary:


Ojibwemowin is strongly verb-based and since a great deal of information is already encoded onto the verb, the word order is relatively free. The subject can go before or after the verb, as can the object. Sentence apexing works as follows: Whichever participant is deemed more important or in-focus by the speaker is placed first, before the verb, and the less important participant follows the verb.


English accomplishes sentence apexing two ways:


  • word order with the more important subject (if there are multiple), or more important verb (if there are multiple verbs), or more important object (if there are multiple objects) come first in the string of those items.


  • vocal tones (with pitch raising or with volume increase or both).


In Ojibwe (traditional Ojibwe) the sentence apex is accomplished by:


  • word order (often but not always VOS), with the more important apex element first, and decreasing in importance as the sentence progresses.

  • by "carry on"; the emphasis is, by way of interjected morphs, carried on to the next word — not in permanent use but in moment use to convey a direct relationship to the following word. The morphs that can be interjected, or inserted, in a sentence are virtually endless. [1]


  • by interjection of  particles, which also convey other shades of meaning, such as doubt, assertion, evaluative, etc.


Some examples of Ojibwe particles are:


  • ahaaw — alright; okay; okay then; O.K.; once more

  • aaniish naa you see; well then; well now; well; that is ; how; why?!; what in the world!; how are you? (as greeting only)

  • aaniin greetings!, hello!, hi!

  • da   please, come on (clarification marker)

  • da naa! — damn it!

  • daga please, by all means, come on, well

  • ehe — yes

  • eye — (female speaking)

  • enʼ — yes (male speaking)

  • enyanhʼ — yes

  • gaawesaa Impossible! No way! Can't be done!

  • gaawiin ingodinoo I don't care, no matter, forget about it; It's ok (that)

  • gaye — also; and;as for; as well; or; plus; too

  • giiwenh so the story goes; so it is said. Example: Mewinzha giiwenh gaawiin ogii-siigwebinanziinaawaa ziinzibaakwadwaaboo.

  • go — expressing affirmation, assertiveness, assurance (emphasis marker) (see igo)

  • haw sa — yes!

  • igo — expressing affirmation, assertiveness, assurance (emphasis marker) (see go)

  • iko — used to, formerly, previously, some time ago, it was the custom to. Example: Anaamoonag iko ningii-tazhi-odaminomin. We used to play under the boat.

  • ina question marker for yes/no questions (always placed after the first word in the sentence; used after words ending in a consonant). Da-gimiwan ina? Is it going to rain. Giwiisin ina? Are you eating? but: Gigii-anokii na bijiinaago? Did you work yesterday?

  • iidog — maybe; must be. Example: Aabiding iidog gii-pabimose 'aw mindimooyenh imaa miikanaang. Once upon a time there was an old lady walking along on the road.

  • miigwech — thank you

  • miigwech gayegiin — you're welcome! (literally: thanks-and-you)

  • miinawaa — (coordinating conjunction) again; also; and also; and; more and more; once more; other; then

  • na Question marker for yes/no questions. It is always placed after the first word in the sentence. If the first word ends in a vowel, use the particle na; if it ends in a consonant, use ina.

  • nahaaw — okay (assent)

  • naa — well! (emphatic particle)

  • oo — oh! oh my!

  • sa emphasis marker. Example: Mii sa go ozhiitaawaad igo. They were getting ready.

  • (a)tayaa — good golly; great many; hey!; indeed!; oh boy! ; oh my! ; too much; well!

  • way exclamation. Example: Way, yay, wewiib enda-gizhigaawan iniw ininaatigoon. Goodness gracious, hurry, the maples are running just fast.

  • waa my! (exclamation)

  • yay exclamation. Example: Way, yay, wewiib enda-gizhigaawan iniw ininaatigoon. Goodness gracious, hurry, the maples are running just fast.


In the old language, EMOTION was typically conveyed by the use of particles, and not so much vocal tones. However, in both Dakota-influenced Ojibwe and French- and English-influenced Ojibwe, there are tonal cues as well, but the tonal cues are different from those other languages. Also, in Ojibwemowin, some key words are emphasized through slight elongation of a word, much like slowing down the sentence cadence, but only for that one word.


Despite the importance of particles, Anishinaabemowin is definitely not a dry language. In the old way of speaking the language, emphasis and phrasing are certainly essential in conveying a thought.


For example, let's take the word nibimaadiziwin ("my life"). Nih bim aa di zi win is one way or saying it. Nee be mah tizz zee win is another way of saying it. Or you can say nee be maad izi win or you can say nee be mah tiss see win or you can say nee be mah tee zee win or you can say nee be maad izz zee win or you can say nee be maad ee zee win or you can say nee be uh maad tiss see win or you can say nee be uh maad tee ee zee win or you can say nee pee uh maad tizz ze win or you can say nee be uh maad tiss zee win or you can say nee be uhmaadtiziwin, and so on. It's up to you how you want to say this one word. It's up to you which syllable you want to emphasize. It's up to you how you want to express the spirit in what you want to say.


Another example: Take the expression nishin igo, which translates as "very good." Nishin means good and igo is an emphasis marker. There are several ways to say (and write) it: Nee shin EE go; nee shin AH go; pee chin NUH go, etc., etc. No matter what you put in there, it drastically changes the word.

You can put the syllables anywhere you want but as soon as you obey grammar rules, you are immediately constrained. Ojibwe is a free language to put sounds anywhere you want. Once you learn that, you are free to go on to create.


"English language came here after Ojibwa was already here. This is why we must make it available to know the old way of speaking and learning it faster and easier than English grammarians do. Most are taught the Ojibwa language by supporting the English grammar. It should be the other way around. If I talk Ojibwa why would I support the English language?" - Turtle Mountain Elder Jessie Cree

Yet another example: When I want to say "I carry my name well," the textbook way of writing would be: Weweni nimbimiwidoon nindizhinikaazowin. Word order: SVO: "Well-I-carry-my-name." Written phonetically: Way-way-nih-nim-bim-ih--wih-TOON-nind-izh-ih-nih-KAA-zoh-win.

However, an "old-school" first-language speaker would probably say it like this: Weweni nimbimiwidoon ay-nindizhinikaazowin. Written phonetically: Way-way-nih-nim-bim-ih--wit-oon-ay-nind-izh-ih-nih-KAA-zoh-win. The prefix morph AY (pronounced like ay in the English word way) is added to join together the verb (nim)bimiwidoon (carry) and the object of the sentence, nindizhinikaazowin (my name). It smoothens it out, makes the sentence more understandable for a first-language speaker. There are many morphs like AY and they all have meaning, and you can interject them anywhere you want as long as it sounds good. You could put any morph in front of a word and it will be ok, but, in the case of the above sentence, AY goes well with your message or meaning.


In other words: Interjecting particles and morphs expressing emphasis and clarity COUNT in the meaning of the word and the overall sentence.

 

 

Gide’ aabijitoon bizindaman: All you have to do is open your heart and listen...

So, in order to speak proper Ojibwe, even if you're not a fluent speaker, I believe that you should follow the sounds rather than grammar rules. It is all about the sounds! Strict grammar rules, especially when based on English grammar, constrain and shackle the Ojibwe language and tend to dominate it. Too many rigid rules are a detriment to the learning process. The old people didn't care about the grammar rules, they simply said what they wanted to say. Start from an intuitive understanding of the sounds of words you have picked up along the way. Whenever possible, listen to recordings of elders and teachers and record yourself to hear where you can improve. Remember, the old people used to speak slowly, thoughtful, never rapidly. Take each word slowly, breaking it into parts or reading it backward if necessary. Most importantly, try to practice every day with words at first, and then phrases, so that you become comfortable speaking out loud. If it sounds right, fine, if it doesn't, just regroup the sounds, apply the sounds to specific words or groups until it sounds right and conveys the meaning of what you want to say. If the textbook teachers frown on you and tell you it's not grammatically correct, don't let it discourage you. It might sound odd but that's OK, if it sounds good, it sounds good! Gide’ aabijitoon bizindaman: All you have to do is open your heart and listen...


Bears don 't use grammar either but when they growled our people opened their hearts and listened, really listened; their minds understood what the bear said, in a telepathic way. A bear, when he speaks, speaks clearly, unambiguous, never backward. When a bear growls everybody understands what they're saying.


Let a bear growl, let an Ojibwe speak Ojibwe.


>>See also: The Power of Sound.

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