Friday, June 03, 2011


One of the best parts of my time on the Pinstuck Plains has been learning the language. The civilizations of the Scalps grew up in a land of huge, open distances. As a result, their language is meant to be sung, shouted, or yodeled as much as spoken. It's called Hmakk.*

I've heard Hmakk shouted from a distance, back when I was traveling with the basket nomads. The clan I was with spotted another one in the distance. Instantly, they erupted with noise, screaming and shouting at the tops of their lungs (which tend to be quite powerful on a Scalp traveler).

This sort of situation is when Hmakk is at its best. Its hard-edged words carry for miles. Though I was nearly deafened by the shouting around me, though I couldn't even see the faces of the other clan, I could hear every syllable they shouted.

"Hni, TiMa! Tile paka hasnakk?" (Hey, TiMa! How is your daughter?)

"Hmaleet mi tle pakyan tiri! Ale powrak kesyameet le hakk!" (Beautiful and growing far too fast! She has trained her first weasel!)

"Preet, preet! Tisa mika hatsa puyrak hnetka…"
(Good, good! My son is learning to weave…)

Every member of the clan seemed to be shouting at once. Through the ringing in my ears, I could hear questions about families and courtships, deaths and births, crafts and stories, travels and tribulations. The young children of the clans shrieked back and forth about beetles and mice they'd caught. The conversations continued long after anyone else in the world would have been out of earshot. A few girls trailed at the back of the group, yelling to their cousins, until the other clan had vanished over the horizon. My hearing returned in a day or two.

As a language meant to be shouted, Hmakk often sounds like cursing even when it's not. I've met a few people in other parts of the world who, when they want to intimidate someone with a stream of incomprehensible profanity, simply count to twenty in Hmakk. ("Hakra tekna khisri HNUYKEMIT…")** It's quite terrifying if you don't know what it means. Actual Hmakk cursing is even more so. The most eloquent (and angry) plains-dwellers can peel paint with their words, and I don't mean that metaphorically.

For the same reason, it's a wonderful language for singing. Nothing can be sung with more enthusiasm than a Hmakk song. They are sung from somewhere below the stomach. Some are straightforwardly percussive, marches and haknits*** and mining songs as sharp as a pickaxe. Many rattle along at blinding speeds, unstoppable as the hot steel of the Train. Others are surprisingly gentle. There's a song called Tehmyana that is simply about the sunrise (which is what its title means). It takes the hard consonants and howling vowels of Hmakk and softens them, blends them together into something clear and smooth, like ice crystals melting into water.

Poetry is written in every language, and Hmakk is no exception. Not all the poems of the Scalp are hard and abrasive.

Just most of them.

* Most consonants in Hmakk are pronounced with somewhat more force than usual, hence the extra H when written in our alphabet. The HM in Hmakk should be pronounced as if trying to speak while coughing. The double K, when pronounced properly, sounds like splitting wood. I have yet to manage it. Apparently, this is one of the best ways to tell a native Hmakk-speaker from a learner like myself.

** …Hepikk sischuy tetya hokk hnitka tett plootya treykya strachney khat-hnuy khat-pikk khat-sis khat-tet khat-hokk khat-ka hlastekk.

*** The haknit is, to the best of my knowledge, a type of song unique to the Scalps. Other music is written to convey emotions like love, or joy, or love, or sadness.**** A good haknit is pure indignant rage. It is a rant, a tirade, a musical dressing-down. Apparently, there's a group of women in SuyMaTmakk who are famous for them. I'll have to try to hear them perform if I'm ever there.

**** Or love.

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