September 2, 2022


Submitted by: Billy Allen



 “Every language is a world.” Words from George Steiner – a multilingual Jewish French American. So much with a few words. Neok/Niok/Chuukwer is a perfect example, ever evolving, ever changing. Our O’otham/Chuukwer languages show how our people have straddled different worlds.  


The arrival of the Spaniards infused a great number of Spanish words into our neok/niok/chuukwer. Conquistador leaders arrived on four-legged animals, the principal being a stallion, which we pronounced kaliyon. We also learned to say palmitoktan and s-pintok for palomino and pinto, but used our color words for the different shades of horses: s-chuk, s-veg,  s-komag, s-toha, s-chedag, s-oam and s-va:yu. (Black, red, gray, white, bluish-gray, light yellow, and a yellow bay.) A Spanish vaquero rode a caballo to keep a becerro/calf with the herd; an O’otham vakial rode a kavyo to keep a visilo with the herd. And the Spanish language world has a great amount of words with Arabic origins due to the Moorish reign in the Iberian Peninsula between the 7th and 15th centuries. Many Arabic words begin with “a-” or “al-,” and were kept in some Spanish pronunciations. If you say “el azúcar,” technically you’re saying “the the sugar.” O’otham (never O’othams) say asuga, Piipaash say arsuukr. 


I like to wake up to strong, hot, black Arabic gahway—Spanish café/O’otham kavhi.  I have a favorite tassah too—Spanish taza/O’otham tahsa.  My morning cereal is sometimes from Arabic aruzz/Spanish arroz/O’otham a-lohs. My other breakfast drink is Arabic narank/Spanish naranja/ O’otham nalash. My evening drink is iced tea with laymun/limón/li-mohn. Confused? Just say cup, rice, orange, and lemon. Ñ tahsa is labeled  vosk and ba:ba’a. 


More “loan words” or “cognates” show up in our kitchens too. This time of year pomegranates are a sweet treat— Spanish granado/O’otham gal-nahyo. Chickpeas – garbanzos/galvash quickly became a staple in our diet. The Spanish cocina is our O’otham ko’sin. A chef at GRIC’s Wild Horse Pass Ko’Sin might be called kosni:lo, from Spanish cocinero. Ko’Sin’s menu lists O’otham favorites like ko:ji and PiiPaash kos, borrowed from cochino which is one Spanish word for pig (there are a few).  


The O’otham word “pilkan,” is puzzling. Wheat came to us with the Spanish explorers and missionaries, but the Spanish word is trigo. Linguits Wick Miller did research in Sonora and heard Yaqui saying tikom, pikom, or gikom for wheat. Opata used the word piltki. Maybe we borrowed from them and O’othamized it?  


As governments changed, trappers, scouts, ‘49ers, etc., all came trampling through our jeved. O’otham/Piipaash were curious (and maybe alarmed) by these new light-skinned migrants. They weren’t Spanish/Jujkam. When these people explained who they were, our ancestors came to call them milgan and merikyan, – new words for O’otham and Piipaash vocabulary. Neok/niok/chuukwer expanded again! Innit.


Sometimes cognates or loan words don’t exactly work out. O’otham inventiveness kicked in: at first a radio was called “hevel neoktam,” tires were “magina shu:sk,” and television was once referred to as a “jiavul wuhi.” (wind talker, machine/car shoes, and demon/devil’s eye)  So, would a cell phone be jiavul ___? Pi an ma:c. 


The spellings I use are not consistent. Each of the four O’otham/O’odham reservations have chosen their own different spellings, pronunciations. Languages change. It would be nice if the media borrowed our O’otham pronunciations for Akimel O’otham, Tohono O’odham, Tucson, San Xavier, Baboquivari, jegos being the main words. We could let them know the original names of our months, mountains, rivers and certain locations also. They seem to say Ak Chin correctly. (Kudos to Ak Chin, listen to KTAR Sports and periodically you get an O’otham lesson.) 


Check out these sources; Papago/Pima - English, Dictionary.  Dean Saxton, Lucille Saxton, Susie Enos ; edited by R. L. Cherry.1983, U of A Press.  Hispanisms in Southwest Indian Languages, https://www.gwern.net/docs/history/2000-bright.pdf.