Of Duct Tape and Hovercraft

Never Tango with an Eskimo

If you listen to enough oldies radio, you come to recognize all the top tunes of the ’50’s and ’60’s. Or so I thought, until the TV hit me with

You must never do a tango with an Eskimo

No, no, no, oh dear, no

When a lady from Nebraska’s

at a party in Alaska

She must never do a tango with an Eskimo

To quote my instant reaction: What the bleepity bleep bleep? Was this another “girl in every port” catalog in the style of Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man”?

Oh my sweet fräulein back in Berlin town

Makes my heart start to yearn

And my China doll down in old Hong Kong . . .

or, more to the point,

If you’re ever in Alaska stop and see

My cute little Eskimo

et cetera.

* Come to think of it, the publishers may have had a point. Patty, Maxene, Laverne . . . You do realize, don’t you, that the English lyrics make this into a song about Third World prosti­tution?

the three Andrews sisters

It probably goes without saying that the umlaut in “fräulein” is absent from the original. Music publishers in years past don’t seem to have had a very high opinion of potential performers’ intelli­gence. Why else would Point Cumana on Trinidad* turn into “Koomanah”?

We won’t talk about the appropriateness of applying the adjective “old” to what is essentially a colonial foundation. Call it Metrically Conditioned Chronological Variation.

Finally: It is, of course, pure coincidence that the only time our travelin’ man expresses any emotion of his own is when the woman in question is European—the above­men­tioned Fräulein. All others are, at most, waiting for him. Some simply exist.

But I digress. Maybe we are, instead, dealing with a cautionary list on the model of Terry Pratchett’s “Hedgehog Song”: you can tango with ethnic groups A, B, C and D, but better not try it with group E.

Preliminary research leads us to a series of videos, each worse than the last. For starters, there’s the all-singing, all-dancing version, a strong contender in the category of Most Offensive Video Ever. You can’t plead age and “we didn’t know any better”; this masterpiece dates from . . . drumroll . . . December of 2013. Go back a few years and you’ve got the animated option, illustrating once again that Britain appears to be terminally confused about which pole is which. Penguins and polar bears, oh my.

From Toeses to Noses

Let’s mute the computer and switch off the Flash storage in favor of plain text. Our tangoing Eskimos are, it turns out, neither list nor catalog. The only peril is catching a chill:

If you do, you’ll get the breeze up

And you’ll end up with a freeze up

It was a hit in 1955 for the English singer Alma Cogan, née Cohen. If the world is to be divided into Anglos and Others, let’s make sure we are on the right side of the divide.

You can do it with a Latin

from Manila to Manhattan

Combined with the earlier business about Nebraska and Alaska, it would seem a safe bet that the songwriter was American. But in fact the perpetrator was English: Tommie (Thomas Patrick) Connor. Perhaps he was angling for the lucrative American market.

* An earworm shared is an earworm halved.

I use the word “perpe­trator” advisedly, for this is the man who committed “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”* just a few years earlier. There’s your American market again; in his home country it would have been Father Christmas. Try working that into a popular song.

You can do it with a Gaucho in Brazil

Yes, it really says “gaucho in Brazil”. It would be jarring even if your mind weren’t already focused on Argentina.

But if once those Eskimoses

start to wiggle with their toeses

You can bet your life, you’re gonna get a chill.

I suppose we should be thankful the songwriter passed up the opportunity to introduce a rhyme about rubbing noses.

You can do it with a sailor

from Peru to Venezuela

You can do it with Apaches in Paree

Or, if you prefer, “Paris”. See above about songwriters’ regard for performers’ intelligence. You have to use the French pronunciation, or it won’t rhyme. It’s just bad luck that the French pronunciation of “apache”—required if this verse is to make any sense—won’t fit the metre.

A quick detour to the nearest world globe reveals that Peru to Venezuela is no great distance by sea. Pass Ecuador, hug the Pacific coast of Colombia, swing north to take the Panama Canal, some more Colombia, and you’re there. The other way around, via the Horn, you’re talking months at sea. You might even meet some penguins.

But if once an Eskimosee

starts to cuddle up so cosy

You’ll find your passion cooling, yes, sirree.

Tommie, stay away from the Arctic. It isn’t healthy for you.

Last Tango in Tunngavik

Suppose that, in spite of all this, you still want to caution someone never to tango with an Eskimo. Right away you run into an interesting problem: There is no way to say “tango” in United Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics.

The final -o- is fine. There may not be a separate letter—or a separate “o” column in the syllabary—but plenty of dialects pronounce “u” as “o”. It’s never phonemic, so go ahead and write it as ᒍ (gu). It’s the middle of the word that leads to trouble.

* Nobody panic. It just means “two letters”.

In English, the digraph* ng represents three different things. It can be

the single sound /ŋ/ as in singer, or
the sound sequence /ŋg/ as in finger, or, rarely,
the sequence /ng/ as in ungodly.

You can guess from all of this that the written letter n existed before the /ŋ/ sound. In the beginning, /ŋ/ wasn’t even a sound in its own right. It was just something that happened to /n/ if there was a k or g in the vicinity. And then, as the centuries went by, the g packed up and moved away, leaving only the /ŋ/ behind.

But syllabics haven’t been around long enough to absorb sound changes. Your ᖕ—which is to say ᖏ ᖓ ᖑ and the rest of the family—never means anything but that simple /ŋ/ sound. It’s no use attaching a syllable-final ᖕ to a free-standing ᒍ, because that leaves you with . . . ᖕᒍ. Indistin­guishable to the naked eye of all but the most dedicated typographer.

That’s what happens when you let Europeans design your syllabary. Nothing to be done about it. We’ll just have to hope everyone knows how to pronounce ᑕᖑ (tangu). And we’ll make it a verb, on the pattern of “waltz” and “jitterbug”, because who’s going to stop us? There has to be a verb sooner or later; doing it this way will save a syllable or two on affixes.

Philosopho-linguistic speculation: How does one stammer in Inuktitut? I mean, well, if, because, maybe, you could, or else, but then . . .

You see the problem. In English, auxiliaries come in front of the main verb. Since it’s a highly analytic language, everything is in separate pieces, including most of what other European languages pack into the verb ending, like tense and mood markers. So you can blather along at great length without ever getting to the verb.

In Inuktitut, on the other hand, you can’t even open your mouth unless you’ve got a verb ready to go. It must make for a lot of awkward silences; there’s only so much you can do with ᐱ (pi).

From here on, we’ll stipulate that the hypothetical verb ᑕᖑ- behaves just like the inherited root ᒧᒥᖅ- (mumiq-), intransitive/nonspecific, “dance”:


“He or she dances the tango”. Textbooks would say “he, she or it”—but once you’ve embarked on the tango, you’ve pretty well waived the option of genderlessness. I mentioned Terry Pratchett earlier. This exchange from Reaper Man (quoted from memory) is apposite:

“What’s this one called?”

“The tango.”

“Can you be put in prison for doing it?”

It is not easy to tango by yourself. But a simple change to


(dual) won’t do. In the tango, there is definitely a dancer and a dancee. So our next stop is the family of affixes beginning in ᖃᑎ (qati), representing various forms of partnership or accompaniment:

* If you want to split hairs, the dictionary says -ᕚ (-vaa). I’m just trying to be dialectally consistent. Here a v:j or p:t variation, there a swallowed -ng-. When you’re doing the tango, you need to hold on to your ᖑ’s.

The dictionary also uses the “ᕐ (r) before a consonant” spelling convention, so the base word is written ᒧᒥᕐᑐᖅ (mumirtuq). Happily there is no need for us to go there.

ᒧᒥᖅᑐᖅ (mumiqtuq) he/she dances

ᒧᒥᖃᑎᒃ (mumiqatik) a dance partner

ᒧᒥᖃᑎᒋᔭᖓ (mumiqatigijanga)* he/she dances with him/her (lit. he/she has him/her as a dance partner)

The dictionarist seems to have been fond of dancing; ᒧᒥᖅ- (mumiq-) is his favorite root for illustrating the “partner” affix. We also get a rare opportunity to look at the other ᒋ (-gi-). This is not the one used in gi verbs, as seen in most things that have some emotional component—including the emotions themselves. Instead it shows possession. But not just any possession:

ᓄᓇᖃᖅᑐᒍᑦ (nunaqaqtugut) “yeah, fine, we own some property, what’s your point?”

is a far cry from

ᓄᓇᒋᔭᕗᑦ (nunagijavut) “this is our land”.

On second thought, maybe the affixes aren’t entirely unrelated.

ᑕᖑ + ᖃᑎ + ᒋ + ᔭᖓ = ᑕᖑᖃᑎᒋᔭᖓ
tangu + qati + gi + janga = tanguqatigijanga

Although he/she is now dancing the tango with him/her, there is no danger of catching a chill. Since each consecutive piece happens to end in a single vowel, the whole thing takes place with no trace of morpho­phonemic contact. Paradoxically, the affixes don’t start rubbing up against each other until you try not doing the tango.

ᑕᖑ + ᖃᑎ + ᒋ + ᙱᑦ + ᑕᖓ = ᑕᖑᖃᑎᒋᙱᑦᑕᖓ
tangu + qati + gi + nngit + tanga = tanguqatiginngittanga

The final -t in ᙱᑦ (-nngit-) forces a change from ᔭᖓ to ᑕᖓ, giving us a tasty ᑕᖑ . . . ᑕᖓ (tangu . . . tanga) bracketing the verb fore and aft.

Unfortunately, it’s the wrong affix. It isn’t enough not to tango in a detached, passive sort of way; you have to actively refrain from tangoing. If you’ve already started, stop. In English, this is expressed by throwing in the word “never”. In Inuktitut, it’s better to treat the injunction as an emphatic negative. Save the “never” for things that have already happened. Or not happened, as the case may be.

ᑕᖑ + ᖃᑎ + ᒋ + ᑕᐃᓕ + ᔭᖓ = ᑕᖑᖃᑎᒋᑦᑕᑎᓕᔭᖓ
tangu + qati + gi + taili + janga = tanguqatigittailijanga

That’s ᑕᐃᓕ (-taili-), “stop or refrain from X”, picking up an extra t because it comes after a vowel. This seems to be another manifestation of t’s morphophonemic wimpishness—the same phenomenon that often turns a final t into ti. The letter needs help if it’s to assert itself against its phonetic neighbors.

I’ve been using ᔭᖓ (-janga), third person, for convenience. Since we’re talking directly to the dancer—or non-dancer—it would of course really be

ᑕᖑ + ᖃᑎ + ᒋ + ᑕᐃᓕ + ᔭᐃᑦ = ᑕᖑᖃᑎᒋᑦᑕᑎᓕᔭᐃᑦ
tangu + qati + gi + taili + jait = tanguqatigittailijait

Nothing could be further from your mind than dancing the tango.

But even this is merely a placeholder. The dancer isn’t refraining from the tango of her own volition; we have to tell her to cut it out. Fortunately there is no need to consult the grammars. We’ve met this particular ending before: ᒍᒃ (-guk) is the singular transitive imperative with third person singular object, as in “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Or, in this case:

ᑕᖑ + ᖃᑎ + ᒋ + ᑕᐃᓕ + ᒍᒃ = ᑕᖑᖃᑎᒋᑦᑕᑎᓕᔭᒍᒃ
tangu + qati + gi + taili + guk = tanguqatigittailiguk

This time around, there’s no agonizing or hair-pulling over what happens to the ending: g it is, and g it will remain.

But where does the Eskimo fit in? We’re not handing down a blanket directive not to tango with anyone, ever. The ban is more narrowly constrained. Tango with a Latin: check. Tango with a sailor: check. Tango with an Apache (Parisian variety) or gaucho (Brazilian variety): no problem. Only one group is off limits.

In English—or Indo-European language of your choice—this leads to further grammatical compli­cations. To tango with someone, you’ll have to put them into the Instru­mental case, loosely corre­sponding to the Inuktitut Vialis. But you can put away the ᐃᓄᒃᑯᑦ (inukkut); you won’t be needing it. When we changed from solo dancing to dancing with a partner, we also shifted from intransitive/nonspecific to transitive/specific. This, in turn, means that the agent of the action shifts to the “ergative”, “transitive” or “genitive” form, while the patient steps front and center to become “absolutive”, “intransitive” or “nominative”. Or, in short: ᐃᓄᒃ (inuk) and that’s all.

ᑕᖑᖃᑎᒋᑦᑕᑎᓕᔭᒍᒃ ᐃᓄᒃ
tanguqatigittailiguk inuk

* Insert boilerplate about Bishop Lowth, with particular reference to (a) the fact that, like most inventors of English grammatical rules, he had no idea what he was talking about, with subsidiary reference to dear Frederick Furnivall’s recurring plaints on the subject of English language study, or lack thereof, and (b) the further fact that even Lowth only expressed this parti­cular pseudo-rule as a mild preference.

But you’ll have to insert it yourself. I haven’t the energy.

At this point you might reasonably ask: If you can’t tango with a human being, who(m) can you tango with*? Not with a penguin, surely; leave that kind of thing to the BBC. How do you distinguish between Inuit humans and all other humans?

Maybe we’d better stick on a further affix, something meaning a real, genuine, make-no-mistake-about-it human. Option A is something in the range of ᒐᓗᐊᖅ (-galuaq). But a cursory look at sources tells me one thing: if I try to use this affix, I will get it wrong. Let’s stick with the somewhat safer ᒻᒪᕆᒃ (-mmarik). Unlike (ᑦ)ᑕᐃᓕ (-(t)taili), there’s nothing optional about the initial double consonant; it’s here to stay. So there is no doubt about what happens to the preceding k: it will be eaten, quietly and without argument.

ᑕᖑᖃᑎᒋᑦᑕᑎᓕᔭᒍᒃ ᐃᓄᒻᒪᕆᒃ
tanguqatigittailiguk inummarik

If you feel like tangoing, go right ahead. Just don’t do it with an Inuk.