Linguist teaches Navajo to Anthropology class

By Angela Le Quieu, Staff Reporter

Former instructor, Ph.D. and linguist, Jay Williams came to CNM on Thursday Feb. 20 to speak with students on Navajo language and culture, and why the Navajo language should still be important in today’s society.

Williams, who is now a technical writer with Chemega Federal Systems, spoke to Anthropology Instructor Shepard Jenks’ class on linguistic anthro­pology and to give a prac­tical demonstration about how linguistic anthropolo­gists work, Williams said.

“I love teaching, spread­ing light and spreading knowledge,” Williams said.

Williams has a passion for teaching, and although he left CNM for a position with Chemega to better support his growing family, it is speaking to students that he enjoys, he said.

Williams said when he speaks with anthropology students, he gives a two-part lecture, which is com­prised of an emersion exer­cise in Navajo and then does a PowerPoint presentation on Navajo place names around Chaco Canyon.

Jenna Abuhilu, Anthropology major, attended the lecture, she said.

“It was awesome,” Abuhilu said.

She described the presentation as starting out all in Navajo, with­out any English, and said that no one understood what Williams was saying, but that he pointed at and passed around objects repeating what he said five or six times, Abuhilu said.

After that Williams talked with the class about what he was saying and the class began to figure out how the Navajo language was constructed, Abuhilu said.

In Navajo sentences, the subject of a sentence is at the beginning and then the verb, and the way the language works is that the sentence has no meaning until the speaker qualifies or gives the content of the sentence, Abuhilu said.

“It stuck with you, it made you more inter­ested,” Abuhilu said.

Jenks said the first 15 minutes is all in Navajo and most students do not know any Navajo at all, but then after 15 minutes the stu­dents realize that they do know some Navajo now.

This part of the lec­ture fits in with what Jenks was teaching during this portion of the class, which is on language, the phenology and morphol­ogy, as well as how lan­guage is connected with culture, Jenks said.

“He (Williams) explains the structure of the language and how it’s different than English and it really reinforces some of the things I do in terms of the nuts and bolts of lan­guage,” Jenks said.

The second part of the lecture was on how the Navajo mythology and place names relate to the geographical features of the Four Corners area, Jenks said.

The Navajo use stories from their mythology to orient themselves in the landscape, Jenks said.

One example of this from Williams’ presenta­tion is what Albuquerque is called in Navajo; it means “suspended church bells,” because it was where people went to church and where you could hear and see the church bells hung in the seventeenth century, Jenks said.

“That really gives stu­dents a really good perspec­tive on living here because it has this mythological meaning that it doesn’t have to most people who live here,” Jenks said.

Williams describes the place names and their sto­ries in mythology as an oral Rand-McNally, he said.

By knowing the stories, a person knows physically where they are in the land­scape, and then they do not get lost, Williams said.

Williams said that he likes to come back to teach students about Chaco Canyon and the Navajo language which he worked on at UNM for his Masters and Doctorate level degrees.

“It’s a feeling that you don’t get any­where else, you know when you run into a stu­dent and they are a better writer or they say ‘Hey Dr. Williams, I made an A on my sociology term paper because of you,’” Williams said.

When Williams worked at CNM he taugh most of the differ­ent types of English and technical writing classes offered at Westside, Main and mostly Montoya cam­puses, he said.

For Williams, teach­ing is a passion for making things and society better, by giving his students the tools to go out in the world, to be successful and to teach others, he said.

“It’s part of what makes me, me. I think what makes a lot of teach­ers, teachers is that you have a passion for teach­ing, that you have a pas­sion for going further for making things better than what they are, making society better, but teach­ers do it one class at a time with one student at a time,” Williams said.

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