A few months ago we decided to pen up our chickens. During a conversation about why, I asked my language helper how to say they were digging up our plants.
“Oh,” she said, “say: tatahtáh hiyero.” They dug ugly.
“Seriously?” I thought, “a word that sounds like a fake drumroll?” I dutifully copied her until she was satisfied and later wrote the word in my notebook with the annotation “to dig.”
This week some government workers are putting in a village septic system and have a huge backhoe making noise right next to our house. Some ladies came to visit and in order to make conversation (and practice at the same time) I commented, “Tatáh hiyero.”
Nothing. They looked at me for a second and so I repeated the phrase. One lady said, “Who’s burning?” Um…what? I wondered if I’d said too many drumrolls or not enough. Did I not pronounce the “h” clearly? Hard to know, considering it’s a puff of air. Should I have been more puffy? Or was my breath distracting them?
After a few tries, I gave up and asked my friend how to say that they were digging. “Oh,” she said, “You wanted to say ‘takoyontiká.’”
I filed this away under “figure out later” and moved along in the conversation.
The next day I was ready to try again. I looked up “to dig” in my notebook, made sure I had the right amount of drumroll, practiced the puffs, and was ready to go. A new lady arrived to visit and I eagerly told her that the men were digging ugly.
“Who is?” she answered with a wrinkled brow. I pointed to the men with the big machine, who were by then going along next to our fence making a trench for a pipe.
“Oh,” she said, “you want to say ‘tawahwantinemíl.’”
I wished I knew how to say ‘oh brother’ in Nahuatl.
It seems that what I categorize in my mind as “digging” is a variety of different actions to the Nahuatl. What the chickens were doing was something like “turning over dirt”, much like you do when you plant a garden, but not to be confused with the verb for “softening” dirt. What the workers were doing the first day was “making a hole” and the machine was just sitting there working on it. The last day the workers were “scratching” a ditch and they were moving as they did it, so you would say they were “going along scratching.”
I can’t believe I tried to say they were digging. How embarrassing.