Gulf of California

Learning about ciimque iitom
by -- April 25th, 2016

Today our class traveled for the first time to the Seri village in Punta Chueca to learn from Xavier, a Seri student and teacher of their native language, cmiique iitom. It was a pretty surreal and humbling experience for us standing on the edge of the Infernillo Channel and looking out to Tiburon Island while Xavier recited the poetry he wrote about the mountains. The Seri language is considered an isolate, with no close relatives among other families, and one of the hardest languages to learn in the world. From getting to look at the written language and hear a bit of it spoken, I can imagine how hard it is to learn. Xavier offered us multiple words to try and pronounce—father in law, or lobster meat, and we all gawked and laughed at the seemingly insurmountable task.

The language revealed much about how different the Seri worldview is from western ways of thinking, and also how language shapes the way you see the world. One example of this contrast is the way the Seri define the word Osprey. In Spanish the word for Osprey is “aguila pescadora” or fishing eagle. The name for the bird in Spanish describes the action of the bird. In cmiique iitom this is not the case. The name for the bird is “ipoj” which to start off is a verb and not a noun. The verb portrays when you’re young and intelligent, agile and with good eyesight. The word describes more of the nature of the bird than what the bird does. Interestingly some animals, like the mule deer, have two names, one that doesn’t mean anything, and one that portrays something about the animal. More and more the elders continue to use the name with meaning, such as “animal of the mountains”, while the younger generation uses the other name.

Unfortunately, this language is thought to be endangered. Out of the 76 groups in Mexico that speak their own language, the Seri are the smallest. Ciimque iitom began as a spoken language, and as such the elders who speak the language can not read and write in the language. Several linguists entered the community and produced the first dictionary, and began teaching Seri how to read and write in ciimque iitom. Xavier was one of those students and now he runs a program to teach kids in the community how to read and write in ciimque iitom after they finish middle school. The first four students just graduated, and now they are teaching around 20 students.

However, in many cases a Seri child still might not speak ciimque iitom because their parents talk to them in Spanish. In addition, their schooling is done in Spanish even though the four teachers are from the Seri community. Since the teachers are trained in Spanish at the University of Sonora, it is easiest for them to relate and teach concepts in Spanish. Concepts are tied to the language they are learned in and as such language can shape the ideas and theories you learn. For example, when asked for the word or concept of “nature”, Xavier first responded with a pretty direct translation for something natural, but then reflected on the meaning and gave a completely different word. He could not answer what the second word meant, or how the Seri conceptualized nature. The difficulty in itself was enough to convey that my view of nature, which I could easily explain, was different and most likely simpler than the one Xavier understood. This highlights the importance of Xavier’s work to preserve ciimque iitom. Losing a language also means losing a way of interpreting the world.

It was important for us to start to learn about their language to better understand where the Seri are coming from, or more realistically, so we could just begin to grasp how in many ways, we view the world very differently. In addition, the community dynamics of the Seri directly play into how they manage their fishery. After getting a glimpse of part of the Seri culture, we are excited to head off bright an early tomorrow to Tiburon Island for a three day camping trip with a group from the community. Adios!

1 Comment

  1. Suzanne Ou
    Suzanne Ou
    Apr 25, 2016

    Great post! Your mom definitely has a strong influence on what languages you speak when you grow up. It’s interesting how ephemeral seaside cultures can be. Linguistics without a strong pillar of community usage can easily melt like butter.

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