Thoughts on Writing – Researching Real World Languages

At my day job, one of my jobs is to organize composite images. Think: class pictures composed of individual student pictures. I start with a basic form, input the data on that form, sort through a list of classes already in the database, make sure the correct names are in the the right fields, and that the grades are formatted properly for the group pictures. I also scan the names of teachers and students to make sure that the apostrophes are in the right place, “Jr.” has that period at the end… etc. That’s the simplified version, but needless to say, I get to see a lot of names (which is great when you’re trying to brainstorm name ideas).

Today, though, one of the other composite creators called me over, baffled by the names in the grade field: AnangoonsagMiigwanensag, and Noodinensan. (Yes, I wrote these down so I could look them up later).

I was baffled, too. While we see a lot of Spanish names, these words weren’t familiar. Problem was, we have a particular format we try to follow when creating composites, and we weren’t sure how to place them. It’s not uncommon for preschools to have grade names like Infant Sunflowers, but this particular job has less information than usual to go off of. However, we suspected they had meaning to the school using them, so we didn’t want to simply remove them from the grade field.

My first suspicion was German (probably because of the double “i” in miigwanensag… but that really didn’t look right. And the words definitely weren’t French or Spanish.

We glanced through one of the classes, hoping to get an idea from the pictures, and several of the students looked like they might be of Native American descent.

Okay, cool. That gave me a way to narrow down my future search if the search returned several hits.

I wrote down the three words, and then once I got home, did a Google search.

Needless to say, it actually narrowed down quicker than I expected.

There aren’t a lot of results for anangoonsag (I’ve got six results from my Google search), but Google immediately came up with an Ojibwe-English dictionary translation page. The translation read: “star: ~little”

Now, I noticed earlier that two of those words end in “nsag,” so I wondered if this might be a suffix of some kind (for “little”).

A few more searches, and I suspected anangoonsag did indeed have something to do with stars. Once I plugged in the other words, Inarrowed down the idea that these words were from Anishinaabe, a language of the Ojibwe/Chippewa people. I used Wikipedia to get a quick overview (Note: Wikipedia is good for overviews, but I wouldn’t advise relying on it for accurate information), and found that, according to Wikipedia, the Ojibwe are the second largest of the First Nations, and historically, they are known for their birch bark canoes and their use of cowrie shells for trading. (This reminded me of history classes I had back in grade school, so this struck a “ah-ha!” connection point with me). I was also curious about their legend of the Wendigo.

Fascinating, how three unfamiliar words can start a bout of research.

Still curious about what those words might mean, I looked for search results that included the word (or a part of the word) and mentioned either Ojibwe or Anishinaabe. I found this site, which has a wealth of information, including a note on diminutive terms. This was important, because I found both -an and -ag.

But these weren’t suffixes. It seems (if I understand the chart correctly), that these are just parts of the particular word. The chart for diminutive terms shows (and includes the pronunciation for) the basic singular form of several words, then the singular “small” form of the word, then the plural form of the word, and then the “small” form of the plural word.

Based on my (relatively quick) searches, I think the three words have something to do with “star” (anangoonsag), “wind” (noodinensan), and “feather” (miigwanensag). There may be more to each word, such as a suffix or prefix I haven’t discovered yet, but still, it’s a starting point.

If I planned on using these details while writing fiction, I would want to delve more into the words and their various forms to make sure the form was correct–or as close to correct as I was going to get.

At the same time, I’ve got more information than I had before, and now I’m curious to know more about the Ojibwe language and culture.

If you find something that your curious about–a word, a myth, a culture–do a quick search. You might find that you want to learn more about it. 🙂

Have you ever come across an unfamiliar word, searched to learn what it meant, and become fascinated with what you found?

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2 Comments

Filed under Writing

2 responses to “Thoughts on Writing – Researching Real World Languages

  1. This is a very interesting post. I did watch the first video on the link you provided. I’m glad you did the necessary research.

    • Thanks. 🙂

      I haven’t watched the video (I typically prefer to read rather than listen, when the option is available), but I did enjoy skimming through the site. Though I may go back and watch the video now that you’ve mentioned it. 🙂

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