The Apache language by John C. Cremony

The Apache Language | Its Remarkable Regularity and Copiousness | How Apaches are Named | Apache Beauties | Disinclination to tell their Apache Names

From Life among the Apaches as observed by John C. Cremony, ca. 1862

Elsewhere it has been stated that my vocabulary of the Apache language had been forwarded to the Smithsonian Institute through General Carleton, and that it had been handed to Professor George Gibbs for the purpsoe of being incorporated in his forthcoming work on Ethnology. As it was the only copy in my possession, I am compelled to rely solely on memory for the very unsatisfactory skeleton I am able to offer in this chapter. It will, however, serve to convince the reader of the superior intelligence of the Apache Indians as compared with nearly all other tribes of American Indians, while it places them at the head of races purely nomadic.

Many of the African, Australian, North and South American tribes, and those who inhabit the Pacific Oceanica, together with several of Asia, cannot count beyond ten, but the Apaches count ten thousand with as much regularity as we do. They even make use of the decimal sequences. With us the number one has no correlative. It is unique in expression as well as in meaning, but when we come to two, we say two, twelve, twenty, two hundred; with the numberal three for a starter, we say thirteen, thirty, three hundred; and again, four, fourteen, forty, four hundred, and so on up to ten, when the process is repeated by referring to the same root numeral from which the higher number derives its name. In like manner the Apaches use a unique word to express one, and another to mention eleven; but all the rest are derived from the root name of the numbers between one and ten. This will be seen from [the following description of their numeral system:]

One is called tash-ay-ay; two, nah-kee; three, kah-yay; four, tin-yay; five, asht-lay; six, host-kon-ay; seven, host-ee-day; eight, hah-pee; nine, en-gost-ay; ten, go-nay-nan-ay. But on arriving at eleven they use an entirely different word, and say klats-ah-tah-hay, which never occurs again, either in part or in whole, until they reach eleven hundred, which is klats-at-too-ooh. When twelve is to be expressed recourse is had to the nah-kee, or two, which is then enlarged into nah-kee-sah-tah. In like manner thirteen is derived from kay-yay, three, and becomes kah-yay-sah-tah. After ten until twenty their numbers are named as follows: Eleven, klats-ah-tah-hay; twelve, nah-kee-sah-tah; thirteen, kah-yay-sah-tah; fourteen, tin-sah-tah-hay; fifteen, asht-lay-sah-tah-hay; sixteen, host-kon-sah-tah-hay;seventeen, host-ee-sah-tah-hay; eighteen, sam-pee-sah-tah-hay; nineteen, en-gost-ee-sah-tah-hay; twenty, nah-tin-yay. It will be observed that after fourteen the aspirated syllable hay is added, and this is for the sake of euphony, as well as the change from hah-pee, eight, to sam-pee in eighteen. It will also be observed that nah-tin-yay, twenty, receives its derivation, like nah-kee-sah-tah, twelve, from nah-kee, two; and this is regularly observed in the following numbers: For instance, thirty is called kah-tin-yay; forty, tish-tin-yay; fifty, asht-tin-yay; sixty, host-kon-tin-yay; seventy, host-ee-tin-yay; eighty, sam-pee-tin-yay; ninety, en-gost-ee-tin-yay; one hundred, too-ooh; after which comes nah-kee-too-ooh, two hundred; kah-yay-too-ooh, three hundred, etc., until one thousand, which is expressed by go-nay-nan-too-ooh, or ten hundred; two thousand is termed nah-kee-go-nay-nan-too-ooh, etc.

Here we have evidence sufficient to prove that the Apaches must have possessed objects of sufficient importance and numbers to have compelled the creation of terms by which the number could be indicated. In the absence of any other object furnished by the region they inhabit, it is fairly presumable that the numerical strength of their race was the impelling cause.

Their verbs express the past, present and future with much regularity, and have the infinitive, indicative, subjunctive and imperative moods, together with the first, second, and third persons, and the singular, dual and plural numbers. Many of them are very irregular, and depend upon auxiliaries which are few. In all that relates to special individuality the language is exacting; thus, shee means I or me; but shee-dah means I myself or me myself; dee means thee or thou; but dee-dah means you yourself especially and personally without reference to any other being. When an Apache is relating his own personal adventures he never says shee, for I, because that word, in some sense, includes all who were present and took part in the affair; but he uses the word shee-dah, to show that the act was wholly his own. The pronouns are: Shee, I; shee-dah, I myself; dee, thee or thou; dee-dah, thee thyself; aghan, it, he, her, or they. The word to-dah means no, and all their affirmatives are negatived by dividing this word so as to place the first syllable in front and the second in the rear of the verb to be negatived. For example, ink-tah means sit down, but to say do not sit down, we must express it to-ink-tah-dah; nuest-chee-shee, come here; to-nuest-chee-shee-dah, do not come here; anah-zont-tee, begone; to-anah-zont-tee-dah, do not begone, and so on throughout the language.

The word tats-an means dead in Apache; but they never employ it when speaking of a dead friend, but say of him that he is yah-ik-tee, which means that he is not present--that he is wanting. If one goes to an Apache's camp, and inquires for him during his absence, the visitor is answered that he is yah-ik-tee, or gone somewhere. This usage, while speaking of their deceased friends, is not so much due to delicacy and regret for their loss as to their superstitious fears of the dead, for they entertain an implicit belief in ghosts and spirits, although I could never trace the causes for their credence. In alluding to an animal destroyed in the chase, so soon as the mortal blow is given they exclaim, yah-tats-an, now it is dead; but if it should only be wounded, and rise again, it is said, to-tats-an-see-dah, it is not dead.

Whenever an object is shown them for the first time, they adopt its Spanish name which is made to terminate with their favorite guttural, hay. Formerly they knew no difference between the values or qualities of iron, silver, copper, brass or gold. Their name for iron is pesh, and the several metals were distinguished by their colors. Silver was called pesh-lickoyee, or white iron; gold, pesh-klitso, or yellow iron; but after learning the difference in their values and uses, they adopted the Spanish terms, and silver became plata-hay, gold changed to oro-hay, and brass was suffered to retain the appellation of pesh-klitso, or yellow iron.

As the Apaches build no houses, and rarely remain more than a week in any one locality, the place of their temporary abode receives its name from their word kunh, which means fire; so that to express a camp, or a few twigs tied together for shelter, we must say kunh-gan-hay, meaning fire-place. Many of their words depend entirely upon their accent for individuality of meaning. Kah is the word for an arrow, and also for a rabbit, but when the latter is intended, it is necessary to give a strongly aspirated sound to the k, rolling it from the throat with marked expression. The term ah-han-day means afar off, a long way; but if the speaker intends to convey the idea of great distance, he must emphasize and dwell upon the last syllable, and pronounce the word ah-han-d-a-y. The word schlanh means much, a good deal; but to represent a great deal, an unusually large quantity, we must say schlan-go, with the accent on the last syllable.

As it is not contemplated to insert the Apache vocabulary in this work, the foregoing illustrations must suffice to convince the reader that for a race so purely nomadic, their language is in advance of many others spoken by uncivilized races residing in villages and engaged in semi-pastoral and agricultural pursuits.

Apache warriors take their names from some marked trait of character, personal conformation, or noteworthy act. Until one of these features be developed to such extent as to be prominent, the youth is called ish-kay-nay, a boy. The women are named in like manner, but as they are deemed altogether inferior, many of them are without particular designation, but are addressed or spoken of as ish-tia-nay, or woman. The names of some of the more eminent warriors on the Fort Sumner Reservation will convey the best idea of this subject. There were Gian-nah-tah, which means "Always Ready," and was admirably descriptive of the man's character. The name given him by the Mexicans was Cadete. Then came Nah-tanh, or the "Corn Flower," so called from having on one occasion, while on a raid in Sonora, completely hidden himself and party in a field of corn near the large town of Ures, and succeeded in running off two or three hundred head of horses. On one occasion he received a kick on the nose from one of the captured animals, which had the effect of flattening that feature over a considerable portion of his naturally unattractive countenance. From this accident the Mexicans dubbed him El Chato. A tall, stately fellow, rejoiced in the name of Natch-in-ilk-kisn, or the "Colored Beads," of which he always wore a thickly-worked and stiff collar around his throat, and bracelets on his wrists. Nah-kah-yen means the "Keen Sighted," and was so baptized because of his wonderful powers of vision. Too-ah-yay-say, the "Strong Swimmer," got his title from a narrow escape from drowning in the Rio Grande, while endeavoring to cross it with a band of stolen horses. After a desperate struggle, in which several of the animals were lost, he succeeded in reaching the shore and effecting his escape with the rest from a large pursuing party of Mexicans, who did not dare venture into the swollen and turbid flood. A quiet, easy-tempered and good-natured fellow was known as Para-ah-dee-ah-tran, meaning the "Contented." One old sagamore received the sobriquet of Klo-sen, or the "Hair Rope," for having lassoed and killed a Comanche during a fight between the tribes, with one of those cabestros. His arrows had been expended, and possessing himself of the arms of his slain enemy, Klo-sen contributed greatly toward winning the fight. Pindah-Lickoyee, or "White Eye," was a noted warrior, who got the appellation from the unusually large amount of white around the small, black, flashing pupils of his eyes. His Mexican title was Ojo Blanco.

As before remarked, few of the women are ever honored with names; but there are some who have decidedly poetical appellations. Among them was a very bright and handsome girl of eighteen or nineteen, who had invariably refused all offers of matrimony. She was light colored, with strictly Grecian features and exquisitely small feet and hands. Her eyes were large, black and lustrous, while her figure was magnificently developed, and her carriage redolent with the grace and freedom of the wild girl of the sierras. She was known as Sons-ee-ah-ray, which means "Morning Star." Another, likewise indifferent to marriage, was called Ish-kay-nay, the "Boy," from her tomboy character and disposition. There was one who received particular honor from the other sex, but her Apache name has escaped my memory. She was renowned as one of the most dexterous horse thieves and horse breakers in the tribe, and seldom permitted an expedition to go on a raid without her presence. The translation of her Apache title was, the "Dexterous Horse Thief." They do not call themselves "Apaches," but Shis-Inday, or "Men of the Woods," probably because their winter quarters are always located amidst the forests which grow upon the sierras, far above the plains, and while they afford fire and shelter from the wintry blasts, enable them to observe all that passes in the vales below.

The foregoing names are somewhat suggestive of Apache character; so much so, indeed, that it is not unusual for them to refuse giving their Apache names when interrogated; but will endeavor to give some Mexican appellative in its place. Before marriage the girls are much the handsomest and most perfectly formed of any Indian tribe I have ever seen; but after bearing children, and performing for three or four years the onerous duties imposed upon them by their husbands, they soon wither and shrivel up, becoming thin, muscular and wrinkled.

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John Cremony, who had served as a Spanish interpreter on the Bartlett Boundary Commission, was part of General Carleton's California Column during the Civil War and served at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. With him at Fort Sumner was Juan Cojo, a Mexican who had been a captive of the Apaches for more than twenty years, from age eleven to age thirty-three. Since Cremony was fluent in Spanish he was able to learn Apache from this man who knew both Apache and Spanish. In fact, Cremony persuaded General Carleton to pay Juan an additional fifty dollars per month to teach him the Apache language. Cremony practiced and verified what he learned on the leading warriors of the tribe. "They expressed much delight at my desire to learn and communicate with them in their own tongue," he says, "and manifested zeal in putting me right on all occasions."

This essay on the Apache language is Chapter XX of Cremony's 1868 book, Life Among the Apaches, now available as a free ebook on this website. If you do not have the Microsoft e-book reader, you can download it free from the Microsoft website.

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