Perhaps language arose with humans as a kind of call-and-response with the natural world. In the midst of the companionable sounds around us, we found ourselves with things to say in turn.
In any case, nature expresses in our languages. We can hear the waters, aspects of geography, animals, birds, weather, and temperature in the sounds, phrasings, and descriptive words and verbs that make up a language. To coax one’s ear to language is to engage with ancestral lands and with nature conversing within and around us.
In the name, sx̌ʷəbabš, -abš is pronounced ahbsh, and means people of. In the first syllable we have: sx̌ʷəb. x̌ʷ is a single character and sound. You can approximate it by making a raspy h sound in the back of your mouth, similar to the “ch” in the Scottish word, loch. When we say the name, sx̌ʷəbabš, even imperfectly, we hear something like: swhuhb-ahbsh. Make the “wh” sound quite raspy and hollow, almost in your throat.
Practice their name. Then head out to the shore. Find a place where the water swirls, or where waves lap. Listen to the water and its motions, and settle into this language. Say again: sx̌ʷəbabš … swhuhb-ahbsh. Experience the waters, Island, and the name of a people for themselves that arose from intimate relationship.
sx̌ʷəbabš are the Swiftwater People. The sound of the waters moves through their name. If we listen keenly and with depth of heart, we can hear the ongoing conversation.
Forcibly relocated, the sx̌ʷəbabš are now part of the Puyallup, Nisqually, Squaxin Island, and Muckleshoot tribes. In the next issue we’ll explore more about nature and language, and specifically about txʷəlšucid, (which sounds a bit like “twuhlshootseed”), one of the names for the language of the Puget Sound peoples.