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Rounding the Bases: Belated Linguists Edition

June 16, 2008

* Erstwhile sportsguy Keith Olbermann has helped to confirm the authenticity of a 1898 memo instructing Major League players to refrain from exclaiming “go f*ck yourself” to spectators in the stands, among other things, as the ladies might hear, etc. In December, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg surmised the the document was a “clumsy hoax,” in part because the memo predated the earliest known references to similar phrases, but Olbermann’s find proves late 19th century ballplayers to have been cussing savants. (To read the unexpurgated version, click here )

* Native oral history as libretto. Or, more accurately, “ethno-history cantata.” A linguist from the Smithsonian records the stories of Ascencion Solorsano, recognized as the last fluent speaker of Mutsun, and a mezzo-soprano decides she must sing them.

* Berkeley conference revives dying languages. Clumsy headline aside, a nice article on the week-long “Breath of Life” conference, during which participants studied some of the Indigenous languages of California Indians that are considered endangered or sleeping. “‘This week has been immense for me because it’s the first time I’ve been exposed to my own language,’ David Morello told the crowd. ‘Anybody can go to a sweat lodge or learn to dance – but language is the cement of our people.'”

Morello, who lives in Pollock Pines (El Dorado County), uttered the Barbeno Chumash words for earth, wind, fire and water. Then he returned to his seat and kissed the “Breath of Life” certificate he’d received.

Pete Ramirez of Morgan Hill held his 16-month-old daughter in his arms and swayed back and forth as he sang a song he’d written- “Maya Rose, I’m calling you” – in a mix of northern and southern Miwuk.

“I want her to be able to sing it one day,” Ramirez, 27, said afterward.


Lori Laiwa had a different sort of project: a photo gallery called “Look at My Family.” By the time it was over, a roomful of people had learned that kegaka was the Central Pomo word for grandmother, that her grandfather was on a baseball team and that all her relatives, living and dead, could be described in their ancestral language.

“But I don’t know how to say ‘baseball team’ yet,” Laiwa said.

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