Ordering Words in Piipaash chuukwer

June 17, 2016


Huhugam Heritage Center

Gila River Indian Community


It is important for us to keep in mind that our Community consists of two tribal nations who have lived side by side on the Gila River since time immemorial. In 1699 when Father Eusebio Kino traveled upstream along the Gila River from Yuma he noted villages near the bend of the Gila that had both Akimel O’otham and Pee Posh living together. There are Community members who still remember a time not too long ago when it was common for people to know and speak both languages, especially on the Westend where families would be intermarried with one another. Today there are only a small number of fluent speakers of Piipaash chuukwer (Pee Posh language). The Huhugam Heritage Center Language Program has been very fortunate to work with a group of dedicated elders and Community members from District 7 who are committed towards preserving their language for future generations.


This past month, the HHC Language Program along with the D7 Service Center and the Salt River O’odham-Piipaash Language Program organized a series of workshops and presentations by Professor Lynn Gordon from Washington State University on Piipaash chuukwer. Professor Gordon started her study of the Pee Posh language in the late 1970s while she was a graduate student in the Linguistics Department at UCLA. Her first teacher was the late Pollyanna Heath, a Community member and fluent Piipaash speaker who was living in the Los Angeles area. As she shared during her evening presentation to the D7 Community she worked with Pollyanna for a short time before they both came to the D7 Community to present their work and to request permission to continue her work documenting the language. The Community at that time approved her request but made two requests for her. The first request was that she include two other speakers in her documentation work, the late Ralph Cameron and the late Jasper Donahue. Second, that she create a dictionary to preserve her documentation of the language for the Community. Professor Gordon continued working on documenting and recording the Pee Posh language until the mid-1980s and has been working up to the present on compiling a dictionary of Pee Posh to fulfill the request made to her by the D7 Community when she started working.


During the workshop Professor Gordon shared with the Community her samples of her notes, parts of her audio recordings and a draft copy of her dictionary. In addition she shared some of what she has learned from her study of Piipaash chuukwer. Piipaash is a language where it is possible to use one word to express a complete thought. This happens with basic commands/discipline words (example 1) as well as with basic sentences that only have subjects (example 2).


(1) Knakk! ‘Sit down!’


(2) Iimak. ‘He/She danced.’



   In addition there is a specific word order found in Piipaash where the verb is always found last in a sentence. This can be seen in the following two examples:


(3) Pamsh xatnya   axamm. ‘Pam hit the dog.’


Pam dog-that     hit


SUBJ     OBJ       VERB



(4) ‘Iipaanysh sny’aka wikk. ‘The man helped the woman.’


Man       woman   help


SUBJ         OBJ       VERB


In the above examples we can see that not only is the verb consistently last but there is a specific order for the words in Piipaash. This ordering is called subject-object-verb order (or SOV) and according to Professor Gordon is the most common word order found in the world’s languages. English has a different order (subject-verb-object or SVO) which is one of the differences that learners must understand when trying to speak Piipaash chuukwer correctly.


During the evening presentation a Community member asked Professor Gordon how many people spoke Pee Posh when she was doing her study in the 1970s. She remembered that during that time Pee Posh was spoken by most people who were 50 and older and it was very common to hear the ladies speaking it in the elder’s room as they worked on their crafts. It is a serious reminder to all of us of how quickly our languages can be lost when we stop speaking with each other on a daily basis. And as we work to preserve and strengthen the languages of the Community we should remember that there are two languages that have always existed side by side and we should continue them forward as part of our Community’s living heritage. We encourage you to start learning Piipaash with some of the bird names as shared to us from the District 7 elders found in this month’s word match puzzle.