Monday, July 16, 2012

Yes, Virginia, There is a Navajo Word for "MySpace"

Okay, I have a thesis, which is this: if you want to know what an author is really interested in, look at a terrible book of theirs*, and see what it's filled with.  (It will have been there in good books too, but it's easiest to see in later ones, when the author's built up a track record and some editorial clout and is free to let their fetishes overgrow plot and character.)


Jean Auel, author of the Earth's Children series.  The lady is over-the-moon about cave paintings.  Her first book in the series is the mega-famous Clan of the Cave Bear.  The last book?  The Land of Painted Caves.  Two stars on Amazon, and guess what folks are mad about.

Terry Goodkind, author of The Sword of Truth series.  Objectivism.  And possibly rape.  But definitely objectivism.  Let's call it John Galt non-con and leave it at that.

Stephenie Meyer, author of... like you don't know.  Look, it's a romance targeted at teen girls, it's not going to NOT feature lavish descriptions of Hunky McHotpants and Smoldering Native of the Beefcake People.  But her white-hot frantic macroing of phrases like "his dazzling pale perfect God-like marble Aryan perfection" gives you a pretty clear picture of what tops her own personal Lickability Index.

*note: this isn't a universal method.  There are plenty of other ways to screw up a book, most of them absolutely well-intentioned, and many authors go their whole careers without taking more than modest sips from the well of self-gratification.

Anyway, so I've decided: twenty years from now, when I'm bloated with egotistical methane and out of ideas, I'd like to go off the rails by indulging in a 500-page linguistic wank-a-thon.  Look, TELL me this isn't cool:
Five Terms From Countryboy79's Archive of Navajo Slang

Girlfriend/Boyfriend - Bich'áayaa íí'áhí  - "the one that sticks up from under his armpit."

Microwave - Bee na'niildóhó - "you warm things up with it."

Days Inn in St. Michael's, AZ - Ba' Dziztiní - "lying down waiting for someone."

Snow Flurry - Ayéhé néiidiníyódí - "the weather that drives the in-laws in."

Movie Theater - Da'níl'íidi - "where they are shown." 
Azee' handéhé - "falling medicine"
There are dozens more on the page (which you will have to visit if you want to know how to say "Burger King"!)  But even from this small sampling, you can see a pattern: notice how all five are nouns, things, but the literal translations are all actions, talking about what the thing does or how it behaves or what it's used for.  You could, if you looked up the language on Wikipedia, find out that it's a remarkably verb-heavy language, with relatively few nouns to speak of - but you don't need a massive encyclopedia article to tell you that, if you've seen even a few examples like these.

So I guess what I'm saying is, what gets me absolutely, gobsmackingly besmitten about languages is that, like an author, they tell you what's important to them - all you have to do is listen long enough.

In every word there sleeps an image.


  1. Ha, so true about the writer's fetishes for things. Anyone who reads my stories will know that I like knives... there's almost always a character who uses a knife at some point and theirs often several. I just think they're cool.

    I guess i could have worse fetishes.

  2. I've read enough of my words to realize that justice is a big issue. Oh, and I tend to run and hide in bathrooms. Hey, this is nonfiction, so I can't write whatever I want.

  3. I think one of my fetishes is a brush with the devil. I always seem to want evil to creep into my scenes in some way or other.

    I also can't stand McHotpants type character descriptions. Give me some real characters to read about! :)

  4. Man, I really need to figure out how to fix the comments so we can thread these things. But until then:

    @AA: HA! I'm totally gonna look for that when your book comes out - don't think of it as a secret weakness; think of it as a great start on your very own drinking game.

    @Pam: Hey, even in nonfiction, you can't write every single fact - it's still about sifting the relevant from the less-so. And man, if bathroom-hiding is a motif with you, then by gum, go for it - just cuz it's not fiction doesn't mean it's not a horrific act of self-exposure!

    @Diane: Thanks for stopping by! And boy, I could not agree with you more - the best devils are the ones that *do* creep, and slither, and smile, and shake hands, and those NEVER stop being shiver-worthy.