Huhugam Heritage Center: Commands and requests in O’otham

April 15, 2016


I va:k! G ‘i hi:m! Thaiwañ! Eñ kaihamath! What do all these phrases have in common? Aside from being some of the first phrases in O’otham that you learn either as a child or as an adult learner, they all belong to a group of phrases that are called commands.


Commands are the types of phrases that we use when we want to request or order someone (or a group of people) to do something. We use commands all the time, regardless of what language we speak, because it serves a basic human need of ours to communicate to one another in a direct way. Commands are found in all languages and every language has developed its own unique way to form command phrases that signal to listeners that they are being asked to do something. So what does a command look like in English and O’otham and how do they differ?


If we pause for a moment and consider how we talk in English we can see that a simple command in English consists of nothing more than a verb (action word) that is said directly to the person you’re talking to. For example, if you’re at the dinner table and your child keeps getting up off his chair you can simply say “Sit!” to let him know what he needs to do while he’s eating. Now, I know there are more polite or eloquent ways we can use to get the message across but what is interesting is that commands in English allow us to communicate what we want using one simple word. But commands in English don’t have to be that simple as we can use other words to indicate exactly how we want the action done. For example we can say “Sit still!” or “Sit on your chair!” or use two commands together and say something like “Sit and eat your food!”


What can we say about commands in O’otham and how do they work? Commands in O’otham are similar in that they usually consist of an action word, but they differ from English in that they usually have some sort of extra marking either at the beginning or end that lets the listener know that they are being asked to do something. For example, when you are at the door you can often hear people letting you know to come in by saying “I va:k!”. Speakers will recognize that va:k simply means to “come in” or “enter.” The “i” portion that comes at the middle is a short word that when used together with the verb lets the listener know that he is being requested to start the action of entering into the house or room to where he is being called.


With the second example “G ‘i him!” we see a regular verb, “him,” with a meaning somewhat equivalent to “go” or “come” that also has the same ‘i action-initiating marking as the first phrase. This phrase also has an extra marker “g” that comes at the beginning. This initial “g” is called a command marker and also works to let the listener know that he is being requested to do something, which in this case is to go over to where the speaker is calling him.


With the third example “Thaiwañ!” we see neither a “g” nor an “i” at the beginning of the phrase but instead get just a verb that communicates to the listener the request to sit down. But if we look at the verb more closely we’ll notice that it has an –ñ at the end that is not normally present when someone is making a statement or question (I:ya anth ‘o thaiwa “I’ll just sit here” or Napth i:ya wo thaiwa? “Are you gonna sit here?”). This ending, or suffix, is very important because it is also used to mark a command and lets the speaker know you are requesting them to perform an action.


So in O’otham there are three ways to make a command phrase: 1) use an initial “i” before the verb, 2) use an initial “g” (with or without the “i”), or 3) use a suffix –ñ/–iñ. With some commands you use more than one and this is where some of the differences in the dialects in our language comes into play as some dialects will use one form while others will use a slightly different form. Now just like we saw in English, commands in O’otham can be more specific and can indicate the manner or direction or way we want things done. You can say “Am g thaiwañ!” while pointing to indicate to someone where you want them to sit, or you can say “S-babgim ‘i him!” to indicate that you want them to come over slowly. But basic commands in O’otham are easy to identify and if you listen for those three markers you can know when someone is asking for your help.