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Traditional O’odham Spelling: Is There a Right or Wrong Way?

By Tasha Silverhorn
Au-Authm Action News

Our Au-Authm Action News readers have been asking why traditional words are sometimes spelled differently, such as Piipaash or Peeposh, or Au-Authm or Awthm. Is there a right way or wrong way to spell these words?

In an interview with Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Cultural Resources Director and Piipaash language speaker Kelly Washington, he explained the reasons for the different spellings, why certain words are spelled the way they are, and what his department is doing to record O’odham words using a single orthography. “Orthography” is the way letters and diacritic symbols represent the sounds of a language in a spelling system.

All languages have a limited set of sounds that are distinguishable. Some languages will share similar sounds, but there will also be distinct sounds that will exist in one language but not in another language.

Part of the reason why recording the Piipaash and O’odham languages in writing is challenging is that they have always been only spoken languages. Every language is an oral language until someone invents a writing system for it, and it depends on what kind of writing system you want to invent and use. Washington said that most languages today use alphabetic writing systems; this means individual sounds in the language are represented by symbols, or letters (A, B, C, D and so on), like the English alphabet.

“When we try to write Piipaash or O’odham, we have to represent [each sound] with a symbol (a letter). The problem is all people are familiar with the English alphabet, but when people try to use the English alphabet to write in O’odham or Piipaash it just doesn’t work,” explained Washington.

Creating a Written Language
“Peeposh was the first attempt at somebody trying to write the language and spell the word (Piipaash). It just got used over and over, and people became familiar with it. Today we are working on the Piipaash language writing system and hope this will be the final writing system for Salt River,” Washington said. It should be noted that most Maricopas in Gila River still prefer to use the spelling, Pee Posh. This spelling is neither right nor wrong. It’s simply a different choice.

Washington began working on developing a Piipaash orthography with his grandmother about 20 years ago. At first he tried to use the English alphabet too, because it was the only alphabet that he knew. He said when he’d have hundreds of words, he would go back and try to remember what the “A” in a certain word was supposed to sound like, and it got confusing for him.

The orthography of the English language includes groups of letters that make up one sound, and vowels that sound differently depending on their position in a word. This is what Washington calls an “inefficient orthography.” For example, the two-letter “OA” sound in “boat” is the same as the one-letter “O” sound in “hope,” but the “O” in “hope” and the “O” in “hop” sound different. Long vowels in English refer to vowels that have sounds different from short vowels, whereas in O’odham and Piipaash, it refers to vowels that have the same sound but the actual length or duration is longer.

“We created a writing system that is specifically Piipaash. We know the sounds of Piipaash, and when there is a sound we create a symbol or a letter [for it],” said Washington. “It’s a one-to-one relationship; you’re not going to have a whole bunch of sounds represented by one symbol (or letter) or a bunch of symbols (letters) that form one sound. That is called an inefficient orthography, and we want ours to be efficient. So ‘E’ is always going to sound the same, ‘A’ is always going to sound the same, and ‘O’ is always going to sound the same.”

“These look like English letters, but it’s not the English alphabet. The same symbols are used, but some of the rules (of spelling and pronunciation) were changed a little. Essentially this is a Piipaash alphabet. Just like when you read Spanish, it uses the same symbols [as English], but with it has different rules. It’s a Spanish alphabet.

“Each language requires people to learn the system (the letters or symbols and the sounds they make). It’s just like going to Russia; if you want to read and write their language, you have to learn it, there is no way around it,” said Washington.

Different Writing Systems
The reason there are so many different ways of writing the O’odham language is because without an established standard writing system for it, over the years people were just trying to write it using the English alphabet, and the sounds could come out any way they heard them. That resulted in random spellings for individual words.

The Piipaash orthography was created here in Salt River. The Alvarez-Hale system was created by an O’odham linguist in coordination with a non-O’odham linguist and is the official writing system of the Tohono O’odham Nation. The Gila River Indian Community have adopted a writing system that is similar, but distinct. Salt River uses Alvarez-Hale for the most part, but there have been a couple of modifications. The O’odham Piipaash Language Program (OPLP) and the Community schools use it.

The Saxton writing system, which is a little bit different, was looked into here in Salt River, but it was not as clear as the Alvarez-Hale writing system. Saxton doesn’t distinguish long vowels from short vowels.

“Whether it’s Alvarez-Hale, Saxton or something we developed ourselves, if it fits the language well and is linguistically sound, let’s decide on one and be consistent,” Washington said. “That is what the language program chose [to do] 17 years ago, by choosing Alvarez-Hale and the developed Piipaash writing system.”

Washington said old spellings are still lingering out there. “Ideally from our (Cultural Resources) perspective, we want to change those old spellings to follow the Alvarez-Hale and the Piipaash writing systems. We would like the whole community to consistently use a single writing system for each language”

Right or Wrong?
There is no right or wrong in O’odham language because there is no traditional writing system; they are all modern inventions. But in order to read, write and teach as language professionals, having multiple writing systems is a hindrance. Imagine having to learn five different alphabets to learn English—it would hopelessly confuse children and other learners.

Mary Garcia, an O’odham speaker and OPLP O’odham language teacher, explained that it depends on how a person says and writes the traditional words. When she first started working in the Community, she asked OPLP staff where the spelling “Authm” came from. Washington explained to her that the word contains sounds similar to the English word “autumn”— so some English readers and writers understandably chose to spell it similarly.

“Then it finally made sense to me. I am now finally learning how to write [O’odham],” Garcia said. “Before I came here, I would write [a word] the way I heard it, using the English alphabet; but when I started at OPLP, I began learning Alvarez-Hale and Saxton and the difference between them. I use Alvarez-Hale because it’s similar and you can use different dialects and use the same orthography. It’s true there is no right or wrong way [to write] because we are just now using this new technology to write this alphabet.”

The OPLP found that Alvarez-Hale was most consistent among the writing systems. It’s easier for a fluent speaker to use because once they learn those symbols its easier to write in any dialect and is less confusing than the Saxton system, explained Alice Manuel, OPLP manager.

“A lot of the speakers like my mom (Audrey Santo) took the class when Emmett White taught it in the early ’90s. It was easier for her to learn the writing system [Alvarez-Hale], and the speakers pick it up easy because it’s more flexible then other writing systems,” said Manuel. “There is no right or wrong way; it’s really up to them if they are willing to learn all kinds of ways. I am really happy that people are asking about it because a lot of people couldn’t care less, it just shows that maybe they are starting to look at the language.”

Members of the O’odham Nioki Hemapa (O’odham Language Revitalization) group shared a similar opinion. Jonah Ray explained that there is no right or wrong way to say or to spell O’odham words because “It’s how you hear it. It’s how you interpret and hear it, that’s how you write it. There is no wrong way until the time comes when a higher authority comes and tells us that ‘This is our language and this is how you spell it.’”

Gabriel Martinez said, “There were a lot of ways that words were written from the Franciscans, priests and missionaries that came here. There have been three to five orthographies that have been written so far that define O’odham and who we are in the written word. I’ve seen ‘O’odham’ spelled at least six different ways before, but in the past few months I have seen it written 12 different ways. It’s how Jonah said, it’s how you hear it I guess. The O’odham way written here in our O’odham Language Revitalization group is out of the Alvarez-Hale orthography.

One of the jobs for us here at the O’odham Language Revitalization group is to help develop those words and spellings for the future.”

Most people who work with the O’odham and Piipaash languages are most concerned with teaching the spoken language. Reading and writing are considered lesser priorities. However, the written language does help some language learners, and it helps to document older words and phrases that people are forgetting. So, the written language does and will continue to play an important role in native language preservation.


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