kwikluk

Word country is not one place; it’s wherever you find it. Words have their carefully cultivated ground, places where they are grown to be bottled and shipped and ship-in-bottled, but they spring up in the wild on the banks of everywhere. Where there are people, there are words. You may have a set of roots sprouting into syntax trees in your own backyard and not notice it. You doubt? Take a kwikluk.

What is a kwikluk? It seems to be a very common thing: people will often say, when they are uncertain of something but have – or hope to have – ready access to usable information or verification, “I’ll take a kwikluk.” If someone wants your instant opinion on something – or wants your approval without too much argumentation – they may ask you to take a kwikluk. And if you want to comment briefly on something, then too you may take a kwikluk. It’s always one, and you almost always take it – sometimes you have it.

Oh, you think I’m being cute. But this word grows in the wild. Take a kwikluk in your atlas. Where? Well, what kind of word does this sound like? I’ve always thought it sounded like Inuktitut, something from Aklavik, Inuvik, Iqaluit. Either that or perhaps Kwakiutl (a language and people from Vancouver Island). And in fact where you find a kwikluk is on the west coast of Alaska, in Yup’ik soil. Yup’ik is related to Inuktitut and Aleut. So there it is.

But I should not really say you find it in the soil there. You find it running through the soil, between banks of soil. This word may seem hard, with its three /k/s, but it has a liquid /l/ and a glide /w/ too; it could as easily be the sound of a trickling brook or of rocks clicking together in their liquid creekbed. You see, a river runs through it – but look quickly; the river changes course constantly. It is a stream on a flat alluvial plain, and it meanders. This word may seem the same, may sound the same, but it wanders far and wide, diverging into soil that had been dry the day before. Such is language change, such is the stream of language. Take the long view and you see not a neat fast canal but a lazy delta. And mathematicians know delta means change. So do potamologists.

And anyone who watches television knows that change also goes with channel. Do you want to take just a kwikluk at what else is on? Change the channel. But with the kwikluk, the channel will change unbidden. Kwikluk, you see, is a channel, a meander in a delta: the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, one of the largest deltas in the world. The name Kwikluk comes from Yup’ik kwikli, which means “river” – this river may meander, but it always flows kwikli.

How quickly can it change? Like this: in 1898 the name of the river, this 137 km meander, was written down as Kwikluk, on the basis of the Yup’ik name for it. By 1915 it had become Kwethluk, which is what you will usually find it under today. How we write what we hear can change, not just because language changes but because when we hear it first we don’t always get it right, and sometimes when we hear it second we don’t either. Different languages have different sounds. This is why we have ketchup and catsup, for example. So if you take a kwikluk you may need to change your view later.

This channel, flowing through an alluvial plain of a northern word country, has meandered as an unsuspected current in our language. We may think we are merely speaking of a quick look, but when you look again you find that you are standing in arctic waters that were not there a moment ago. The word has meandered into your mind and will move much soil in its sedimental journey. Now you know: when you take a kwikluk, you are taking a piece of a river, an ever-changing flow, just a cup out of water that will have moved on when you turn back – from a channel that itself writhes constantly in its landscape, ever changing course by inches, never going straight. You are taking a quick sip of the river of language.

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