Chronicles of Oklahoma

Skip Navigation

Electronic Publishing Center
Oklahoma Historical Society
Chronicles Homepage
Search all Volumes
Copyright 2001
Purchase an Issue

Table of Contents Index Volume List Search All Volumes Home

Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 14, No. 3
September, 1936
THE COMANCHE INDIAN AND HIS LANGUAGE

By W. J. BECKER, Professor of Freshman English at Cameron State Agricultural College

Page 328

The American Indian belongs to one of the five racial divisions of the human family. He is by no means the least significant nor the least endowed, although his race is the smallest in numbers.

The physical resemblances and the extreme diversity of language seem to be a fair indication of the great length of time the Indians must have inhabited America. About fifty-five or sixty linguistic divisions are found in America north of Mexico. These languages, however, differ so radically that one language cannot be understood by a person of another tribe. Structurally there is also a great variety.

The Indians as a rule have natural artistic powers and poetic instincts which are exceptional, but which have had little opportunity for expression. Having no written language the Indian must store in his memory and pass on to his tribe the accumulated knowledge and wisdom which may have come to his attention.

A large number of religious songs have been translated, not only from the English, but also from the Spanish and German languages into the Comanche. Attempts at translations of parts of the Bible have been made, but not with any great success, probably because there is no written vocabulary which is reliable and dependable.

One of the sub-divisions of Shoshone is the Comanche. There are various traditions as to the early location of the Comanches: "(1) Omaha tradition avers that Comanches were on the Middle Loup River in the nineteenth century, (2) Crow tradition maintains that they lived northward in the Snake River Region, (3) Bourgemont found a Comanche tribe on the upper Kansas River in 1724, (4) Pike in his explorations in 1810 indicates that the Comanche territory bordered the Kiowa on the North, the Comanches occupying the head waters of the upper Red River, Arkansas, and Rio Grande. The Shoshoni (Comanches) had

Page 329

pushed across California; dispossessed the Mariposan tribes thus occupying nearly the whole of Nevada, California, and the S. E. part of Oregon."1

The Comanche is the language of one of the Shoshone group which today lives in the region between the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma on the north, the Red River on the south, the main line of the Rock Island railroad on the east, and the North Fork of the Red River on the west. Another group of Comanches, however, is located in Texas, near Juanah and Nocona.

The study of the Comanche language by comparative methods is rather complicated because of associations of tribe with tribe, of Indians with Europeans, removal of tribes from one locality to another, and the spread of civilization. This often has led to a jargon language which in many cases is considerably developed. I do not wish to infer, however, that the Comanche is a jargon language. The great simplicity of the Indian's thoughts and the influence of his surroundings, the wild tempests, the water-falls, the woods and the skies, have led him to the use of figures, elements of poetry, and an eloquence that is remarkable in its appeal.

The Comanche is one of the many linguistic dialects which does not have a written form, and therefore most of the information in regard to the language has come through personal interviews with early day cattlemen, traders, old tribal leaders, missionaries, government workers, employees, agents, and superintendents who are familiar with the language. With regard to the language itself my information must come from the accumulated knowledge of the Indian and my own linguistic familiarity with it.

The Comanche in its youth was probably uninfluenced by other languages, and had the power of growing words. These words grow from a stem root, and have a family likeness, branching out into various derivative words. Slurring extends over syllables and from one word to another, such as the elision occurring in French. The Comanche language uses a limited number of sounds, many of these being consonant mute sounds, which are never excessively large in any particular dialect. Easy communication requires limited phonetic resources, because the Indian is inclined to use signs with his verbal conversation.



Page 330

In studying and making comparisons of compounds in the various languages with those found in the Comanche Indian language, the question naturally arises as to whether or not the compounds of languages and especially of primitive languages follow a uniform rule or scale.

It is a known fact that compounding is one of the methods used to form new words in practically all languages. I shall give examples and show by references that compounding is not merely one method, but that it is the most common method used, and that in the primitive Comanche language compounding of words comes before a period of extended borrowing.

In order to do this I have devoted a few paragraphs to the historical facts dealing with the Comanche tribe, as to original and present location, and general information concerning the linguistic stock.

In dealing with the Comanche language it is necessary to touch upon its classification, nature, development, evolution, as well as upon the grammatical structure, vocabulary, alphabet, pronunciation, and phonology.

It appears that compounding is one of the oldest and simplest devices used to supply new names or words in languages. Although the laws of language appear to be entirely unknown to the Comanches, and linguistic phenomena never arise into the consciousness of primitive man, the compounding of words is one of the most common methods used to form new names or words in this language.

It is true that borrowing of words takes place and is resorted to only when the native language fails or when there is close contact with foreign languages. Strange to say the Comanche, although in close contact with Spanish speaking people in New Mexico and Colorado, shows very little evidence of borrowing.

As the Indian came into contact with unfamiliar objects he tended to describe them by the use of compounded words and figures of speech. "The whites brought to America a host of things which were utterly strange to him, and which he could comprehend only by comparing them to familiar objects. This he fabricated a number of quaint metaphors which seemed indica-

Page 331

tive of poetic fancy; "fire-water" is a stock example. In every language too, much primitive poetry is embedded. Many of our commonest words were once bold figures of speech. Their poetry emerges anew if they are translated literally into another tongue. "Dark and Bloody Ground" gives us a much deeper thrill than "Kentucky" could have given the redman. Thus Indian efforts to speak English, and English efforts to translate Indian, no doubt added to the savage's reputation of a "coiner of images." "The balanced, image-laden cadences remind one of Ossian; it seems that the Indian sings pseudo-Celtic songs, and speaks pseudo-Celtic prose."1

The Comanche name for whiskey is bosa-pah, literally translated, crazy water. The Comanche name for soldier, eck'sap-a-nah, red abdomen, is much more descriptive than one which merely designates a soldier by some non-figurative word, or the word o'hap-te-po'ewe, yellow metal, gold, is more figurative than our own term.

Whitney in "Language and the Study of Language" says: "Dialectic division is carried to its extreme among them; the isolating and diversifying tendencies have had full course, with little counteraction from the conserving and assimilating forces."

"It tends to the excessive and abnormal agglomeration of distinct significant elements in its words; whereby on the one hand, cumbrous compounds are formed as the names of objects, and a character of tedious and time-wasting poly-syllabisur is given to the language—see, for example, the three to ten syllabled numeral and pronominal words of our western Indian tongues."2

Examples of this are found in the Comanche numerals, as one-thousand and eleven, pea'Symet-syme-matoi'kut, big hundred, one added to ten; and in names as: koon'a-wabe-poke, fire-wagon-horse, literally meaning train. At the present time, however, the new for koon-a-wagon is coming into use almost exclusively. The word wagon, of course, has been borrowed from the English.

Compounding is common in the old Anglo-Saxon and on down to the present day English, while in German it sometimes reaches





Page 332

colossal proportions. Compounding is used quite extensively in the Comanche, and is not without its advantage, for it gives the substance of a whole thought or sentence in one compounded word. Such words might be classified as being only syntactical relations, however, I am strongly inclined to believe that the Indian thinks of the entire group of words in terms of a single unit. This same tendency is evidenced, in practically all of the noun-compounded words and also those long words which are formed by the composition of other parts of speech. Such words are: Ei(t)-hanit, bad deed, or evil, but literally translated eit, bad; nohin, anything, mahanit, do, or do anything bad; Cha-hin'a-supanat, wise, but literally translated, chart, good, nohin, anything, a, euphonious prefix, ma-supa-nat, know, or know anything (good) well.

The word in the Comanche language forms a natural unit from which the sentence is built, and may be compared to the lengthy compounds, similarly constructed, in German. The tendency to form compound words from single units is used extensively in the Comanche. As for example the Comanche word quas, meaning tail, forms the natural unit, developing into quas'ick, last, end or later; hi'e-quas-ick, last (positive, or absolute); quas'e-tivo, meaning monkey or literally quas = tail and tivo = man; and quas-e-na-vo, meaning snake, or literally striped tail.

Other words, found in the Comanche are: woonie, meaning to see; ma-woo'nie, to look; na'woonie, mirror; na'na-woonie, (glass) or window; cha-na'woonit, beautiful, good looking; ma'nak-woon'it, to see far.

Very often a stem word merely has a suffix or an inflectional ending which gives various meanings to the word as: her'ke, arbor; her'kee-i, umbrella; her'kee-ah', shadow; and her'kee-ad', cloud. Cloud, also to'mo-ve.

Let us examine a single word in the Comanche language, the word ka-to'ka-pah. It comes to us in the form of three distinct words which I recognize as separate Comanche words. Ka-to'ka-pah means kerosene. Ka is the regular word for no, to'ka means dark or night, pah is the Comanche word for water. Therefore the meaning by translation is: no-dark water, which word is used in the Comanche rather than a new coined word or the English word kerosene, or its equivalent compound coal-oil.

Page 333

George O. Curme in "A Grammar of the German Language" states: "A compound may consist of two words or several, it can as a rule have only two compound elements—the basal component, which contains the more general idea, and the modifying component, which contains the more special meaning, usually some essential modification of the meaning of the basal component, and hence accented; Zweigeisenbahn, a branch railroad, Vaterlandsliebe, love of native land. Each element can thus be simple or compound."

The Comanche word for God is Ta-a'pah. Since the primitive Indian's conception of God was something akin to sun worship and not an abstraction, the Indian word translated is Ta, meaning day, and ap'ah, meaning father. Therefore the word means Dayfather, or according to the primitive conception, God to him meant the sun, which in turn is the "father of day."

In "Language and the Study of Language" Whitney says: "So also, the mariner calls to'gal'nts'ls what we landlubbers know by the more etymologically correct, but more lumbering, name of topgallantsails, and these are but typical examples of what has been the history of language from the beginning. No sooner have men coined a word than they have begun—to see how the time and labour expended in its utterance could be economized, how any complicated and difficult combination of sounds which it presented could be worked over into a shape better adapted for fluent utterance, how it could be contracted into briefer form, what part of it could be spared without loss of intelligibility."

There are some words in our language, as also in the Comanche language, of composite structure, which we do not recognize as such, but upon tracing their history we can analyze them into two component parts. This tendency is well illustrated in the following Comanche words

To'sarre     originally     Tovt-sar're,         Black dog
To'pape      " Tovt-pa'pe, Black head(ed)
To'tivo      " Tovt-ti'vo, black man (negro)
Ei'hanit      " Eit-ma-han'it, do evil (bad)

The following Comanche compounds I believe will show words which the Indian seldom recognizes as two independent elements

Page 334

pah'choko meaning otter, literally water-old one, or old one in the water; Nap'pywat a proper name, literally no shoes, nap shoe, wat without; Ase'nap a proper name, literally gray foot or shoe; pe'a-ate gun, literally big bow.

The Comanche words to'tivo, literally black man, negro, and to'quas-se-tivo, black-tail-man, devil, show the use of 'to', a contracted form of the word tovt, black, which has almost lost its original identity. Comanche eva-mora-yak'e, green-mule-cry, means bull frog. Pe'tso-ta-qua'va, water turtle, but literally translated petso, waist, quava, grab or hug. It was rather a difficult task to trace the origin of such an odd compound, yet after a large number of Indians were questioned the following story tells the origin.

An Indian, while swimming, suddenly screamed that something, which later proved to be a water turtle, had seized her by the waist. This slight incident so impressed the Indians that the name of pe'tso-ta-qua'va was given it and is still in common usage.

In a letter dated May 20, 1848, Schoolcraft gives the following words:

"Kay no
Kaywut none
Kayshaunt                bad or no good
Shaunt good, or perhaps many;
it commonly expresses good."

The Comanche word for bad is kishwat; good, chart; and no good, kay'chart. It is interesting to note that at the present time the common word used by the Comanches to denote a bad person is kish'wat, which, according to the spelling given by Schoolcraft was originally kay-shaunt or no good. The present Comanches use both kich'wat, meaning bad, and 'kay-chart,' meaning no good. The author, however, is in error when he also gives the meaning 'many' to the word 'shaunt.' The word for many, sawt, is somewhat similar in sound, but is a separate element. The Comanche word ah-hi'ts is used now as the English word 'hello,' or literally from nea-heits; nea, my, and heits, friend.

Schoolcraft in his book "Indian Tribes of the United States" says: "It is, confessedly, illogical and impossible that the Indian's

Page 335

ideas should have clustered together, at the beginning, without elementary meanings. Such a botryoidal commencement of a language would be anomalous. Ideas flow together, and mix like streams. The Indian must have had some elements to make up a language from—and what were they? Earth, fire, water, wind; black, white, red; to strike, to run, to see, to eat, to live, to die, these must have been elementary ideas. Separate existence, a man, a child, a thing—these must have been elementary in the Indian mind. God, house, hill, river, plain, mountain, are terms that appear more fitted for compounds. He must have had a name for grape, before wine; for a quadruped, or bird; before he named species; for a liquid, before he specified liquids. Whatever the process of accretion was, there was a rule. It must have been known, in making compounds, what syllables or letters could be thrown away, in the new compound, without affecting the sense."

Throughout the study of the Comanche language it appears strongly evident that the natural and easy way of forming compounds has been resorted to by the Indian. In fact the Comanche Indian seems to delight in the accomplishment of forming new words for strange objects and of giving meaning to a new idea. This is especially evident in giving names to individuals. Such names are given to people of position, people whom they admire, hate, love, or in fact anyone who seems to have made a definite impression upon them.

"The American Indian," by Haines, has the following: "In general Indian names for persons are derived from the terms for sky, cloud, sun, moon, stars, mist, wind, sound, thunder, lightning, lakes, rivers, trees, animals, birds and the like . . . . In some cases they had their children named when a few days old, in others not until they had attained the age of two or three years. Almost every person received a nickname, either characteristic or arising from some peculiarity, which they often retained after arriving at maturity."

The following is a list of names of Comanche Indians. A large number of these are titles of Indians who are still living and with whom the author is acquainted. Others are those appearing on tombstones in various Indian cemeteries.

Page 336

Ase-tam'my                       gray brother
Cha-copah' easy to break
Cochso-que'tah cow dung
Co'ro-pwoonie looks brown
Cha-ten-a-yack'e good crier
E'sa-teckwan liar (lie-talk)
Eck'a-wi'pe first woman
Eck'a-pe'ta first daughter
Ka'sa-na'vo painted feather, literally striped wing
Maw'wat no hand
Mo'pie owl
Mo'pe-choko-pa old owl, (former Comanche chief)
Mo'ra-que-top mule dung, (former Comanche chief)
Nap'py-wat no shoes
O'hapt-e-qua'he yellow back
O'he-wun'nie yellow steps
Pah'choko-to'vt black otter
Poah'pah-cho'ko medicine otter
Per'na-pe'ta only daughter
Pah'choko otter (water-old)
Po'ha-bet'chy medicine carrier
Po'ko-a-too'ah colt (horse-child)
Que-nah-tosavit white eagle
Qua'va-a-y'tchy hugs in the morning
Quas-se-yah' tail-lift
Saw'peten comes often
Tah'kah-per poor one
Ta'by-yetch sunrise
To'pape black head
To'mo-a-too'ah sky child
Tis'che-woon'ie looks ugly
Ta'yetchy rises at daybreak
To'sa-woonit looks white
Tip'e-konnie rock house
Ta'by-woonie sees the day
Ta'by-to'savit white day

Page 337

To-bits-a-ku'mah               real husband
To'sarre black dog
Tooah-woon'ie looks like a child
Wer'se-pappy curly head
Yanny-va-too'ah laughing child
Yer'a-petun came in the evening                        
Yack'e-pete crying daughter

Compounds formed by a noun with a noun are very numerous in the Comanche. Probably the next largest group consists of combinations of noun with adjective. It will be noted, however, that the Comanche lends iteslf readily to compounds formed by other parts of speech. In the case of the compound formed by a noun, verb, and adjective or other parts of speech it is evident that this type may become extremely long, and might be classed as a syntactical relation by some authorities. In most cases, however, the Indian recognizes the group as expressing a single unit or idea.

Some elements such as ta, to, cha, mo, and others may at first appear to be prefixes, but they really represent shortened forms of the words ta'bin-e, tovt, chat, and mo'be.

The rules of compounding as employed by the Comanches in the formation of proper names, place names, and general compounded words, are also employed in the composition of numerals. The Comanches compute numbers by comparison to the fingers or the hand, as, for example, five, maw'wat (like the hand). Their digits, as will be noticed, are composed of individual names for each one, to the number ten, symen. Beginning with eleven, however, one added, two added, etc., is the method used until the term twenty, wa'ha-men, is reached, when one added to twenty, two added to twenty, is again employed to the number thirty, pi'he-men. Forty, fifty, sixty, etc., is readily formed by four-ten(s), five-ten, six-ten, or the multiplication of the decimal number. One hundred is a term related to the word for ten, and is designated by the word symet. The terms one, two, three, preceding this, renders the account to one thousand, pea'symet, a big hundred; and the same prefixture for digits is repeated to ten thousand, hundred thousand, and so on to million, pea-choko'symet, or big-old-hundred.

Page 338

For the purpose of further illustrating the mode of counting by the use of compounding I have here added a list of Comanche Indian numerals with the English equivalents.

English                Comanche
one sem'mus
two wa'hat
three pi'hut
four hia'ro-ket
five maw'wat
six nab'aite
seven ta-ach'chuit
eight nem'a-wachit
nine wom'nat
ten sy'men
eleven syme'ma-toi'kut
twelve wa'hat(e)-ma-toi-kut
thirteen pi'hut(e)-ma-toi-kut
fourteen hia'wro-ket (e) ma-toi-kut
fifteen maw'wite-ma-toi-kut
sixteen na'ba-ait(e)-ma-toi-kut
seventeen to-ach'chu-wit(e)-ma-toi-kut
eighteen nem'a-wa-chit(e)-ma-toi-kut
nineteen wom'net(e)-ma-toi-kut
twenty wa'ha-men
thirty pi'he-men
forty hia'wro-ket-symen
fifty maw'wa-(ka)-symen
sixty nalba-a(it)-symen
seventy ta-ach'chu-wi(t)-symen
eighty nem'a-wa-chit-symen
ninety wom'net-symen
hundred sy'met
two hundred wa-ha(t)-symet
thousand pe'ah-symet
two thousand wa-ha(t)-pea-symet
million pea-choko-symet

The most primitive element of a language is the root, the exact form of which cannot be ascertained. It may have consisted

Page 339

of one or more syllables but usually appears today in a reduced form which may be called the stem. Inflectional endings are added from which new words may be formed by the addition of prefixes or suffixes.

The following examples in the Comanche very readily show the stem to which prefixes or suffixes have been added in order to form new words.

Pe'che teat woon'ie see
Pe'chen suck ma-woon'ie look
Pe'chep milk Na'woonie mirror
Yu'pechep grease, butter na'na-woonie     glass (window)
Ka no ta day
Ka'wat none ta-a'pah God
Ka-cha't no good ta'pave president
Ka-to'ka no dark ta'tech-kan breakfast
Pah water ma (futureaction)
Pah'choko otter ma-och'ton give
Pah're-vo fountain pen ma-rea'wick tell
Pah're-tso-pe spring (water)     ma-he'man get, buy
Cha good ei(t) bad
Cha'na-kut rich ei'nur-se-cut unhappy
Cha'nur-se-cut happy ei'hin-hanit do evil
Cha'ma-woon'ie     see well ei'woon'ie looks bad

New equivalents are readily formed in the Comanche as: po'ah, road or medicine, po'ah-rivo, road-tell(er), minister; po'ah-kanick, road-house, church; po'a-teckwan, road-talk, preach; po'ah-tabine, road-day, Sunday.

The stem word in this case is po'ah, from which any number of compounded words may be formed as the need arises. The accent as will be noticed is always on the first element which in these cases is the important or basal component.

A large number of words not recognized as compounds, when analyzed, are found to contain two or more monosyllabic roots. The Comanche words conform to this method of word formation and only close study will reveal the original stem or word as may be noticed in the following: ta-yetch, morning, literally day-rise, from ta'bine, day, and yetchen, to rise; to'pape, black-headed, literally tovt, black and pa'pe, head.

Page 340

Our language contains a group of words whose origin is seldom interpreted by the one using them. The following example taken from "Words and Their Uses," by Richard Grant White, illustrates: "The word petroleum may be admitted as perfectly legitimate, but it is one of a class which is doing injury to the language. Petroleum means merely rock oil. In it the two corresponding Latin words, petra and oleum are only put together; and we use the compound without knowing what it means. The language is full of words compounded of two or more simple ones, and which are used without a thought of their being themselves other than simple words—chestnut, household, husbandman, manhood, witchcraft, shepherd, sheriff, wheelwright, toward, forward, and the like. The power to form such words is an element of wealth and strength in a language. If those who have given us petroleum for rock-oil, had had the making of our language in past times, our 'evergreens' would have been called sempervirids."

Two or more simple words in the Comanche form the basis of compounds which at the same time retain their original identities, as:

to'sa-mocho                White Beard
pea'hochso Big Eagle
to'mocho cat fish or black whiskers

Compound names especially are numerous in the Comanche probably because of the habit of giving names in relation to some early act or characteristic of the individual. Often I have been in a group or na'nea-ok-quet (name-meeting) conference with Indians when they were deciding upon an Indian name for some stranger who had come into their midst. I can best illustrate this by a few examples. They have no regular word for president and since a man in that position is supposed to be a brother or friend to all, they call him ta'pave, which, translated, means everybody's brother. My father, who in the early days wore a short beard, was named To'sa-mocho, White Beard, white because of its light color. Today most Comanches and a large number of Kiowas know him by no other name.

Recently a young minister (white) delivered a series of sincere, matter of fact, religious lectures to the Indians, and before he left they named him according to their idea of his strong

Page 341

characteristic, "Straight Shooter" because he talked 'straight from the shoulder.' My own name, Pe'a-hoch-so, Big Eagle, dates back about twenty years. As a boy I "perched" myself in the top of a large tree, when an Indian who discovered me shouted, "Pe'a-hock-so iva'woon-it!" (see the big eagle). This is the only name by which I am known among the older Indians unless it be To'sa-mocho-too'ah, White Beard's son.

The following words show the existence of two or more independent elements, such as morning and meal, metal and talk, before the formation of the compound was possible. Ta'tech-kan, breakfast, analyzed is morning meal. Ta being a shortened form while tech'kan is the complete stem word meaning to eat. Po'eweteck-wap, telephone, analyzed is metal talk. These two simple words again form the modern Comanche compound.

Composition proper is formed by joining the stems of two words without using inflectional endings between them. Comanche is replete with words which do not appear to stand in self-evident syntactical relation to one another as may be seen by the words too'ah-woonie, child-look, (looks like a child), and tabby-woon'ie, day-look (sees the day). The accent in the first of these words is on the first element, therefore on the main stem; whereas in the next word the accent is on the second stem, therefore the main stem or determining element. The meaning consequently is determined by the accent.

Odd compounds, in which the individual words themselves do not give the direct meaning are also numerous in the Comanche, as also in compounds of other languages which have been compared. It appears that our well-known word, whiskey, has something in common not only in effect upon people but also in the formation of language. The Gaelic form was uisgebeatha, or properly (at the time) water of life; the Irish use the word usque-baugh, fire water, (more characteristic) whereas, the American Indians, in general, called it "fire-water." The Comanche, I believe, come nearer to a figurative description when he calls it Bosa-pah, crazy-water.

In a study of the compounded Comanche words we may infer that single words were in existence before compounded words, but

Page 342

that the oldest and simplest device for word formation is compounding. The Comanche Indian language as well as Teutonic languages forms new words or names by compounding new elements out of old roots, stems, or words.

The language although still in a rather primitive state has a wonderful strength and power in its descriptive elements. In oratory the words flow from the lips of the speaker in a soft yet forceful manner.

The language has a varied structure and can form well balanced sentences which contain innumerable image laden figures of speech. In story the language can adapt itself to vividness in description, interest in the narrative, and emotional appeal in the dramatic. One cannot study the language, or hear its songs, nor listen to the stern impassioned speeches of the Indian whose soul is afire with patriotic enthusiasm and religious fervor, without wondering what noble blood flows through the veins of the once proud master of the western plains, the Comanche Indian.

Return to top


Electronic Publishing Center | OSU Home | Search this Site