As Soon As You Say This Word: Wolf – El Lupo – Ôkami

By Sierra Nelson, WITS Writer-in-Residence


Does the word Wolf move differently than El Lupo? Do we experience anything different in our bodies when we say the Russian word волк (pronounced “volk”) compared to the Japanese word 狼 [おおかみ Ôkami]? I was excited to explore these questions of language and translation in my WITS residency, working with Mrs. Roughton’s and Ms. Oakley’s 3rd grade classes this fall — especially since all the students at McDonald International Elementary spend half of their day learning in either Spanish or Japanese, and the other half of the day learning in English. (And this is in addition to other languages some of the students speak at home or are studying outside of school.)

For one session, we started by looking at the poem “Wolf” by Barbara Juster Esbensen from her book Words With Wrinkled Knees (and first introduced to me by fellow WITS teaching artist Karen Finneyfrock). The poem begins with this stunning image of conjuring:

As soon as you say this word
snow begins to fall

W O L F

In Seattle, where a few inches of snow is a big deal, and even the threat of a big snow storm may be cause enough for schools to close, this kind of word-magic is extra potent. In one of my classes at McDonald International, as the meaning of Esbensen’s opening really sunk in, the students began to chant “Wolf! Wolf! Wolf!” and looked hopefully out the window. Was it working? What else might a poem need to open up the skies?

Esbensen’s poem goes on to follow the word-animal on its journey, for example watching as:

it slips behind
sketches of dark pines
and birch trunks
its footprints quick
as the snowy page…

At times in the poem we see the animal as a word, sometimes as a glimpse of a story (“a little girl fastens her red / cloak”), and then it shifts again to the animal itself, alert and on the move:

Muzzle turned
to the north wind
W O L F          runs…

After exploring and enjoying Esbensen’s poem together, we then looked at the words for “wolf” in some non-English languages. Would Esbensen’s poem feel different if another name for the same animal had been used? Or if the poem had been in another language entirely? One student thought the Spanish name El Lupo and the French name Le Loup were animals that moved more slowly than the English word, and we all took a quiet moment to track the different word-animals, observing their footfalls closely in our minds.

Another student saw more winter in Wolf than its Latin-rooted kin, the shared “W” like a secret signal blowing silent snow. To this student, other words for “wolf” seemed to live in other seasons, different landscapes. Another student was surprised that “Wolf” in English and German are spelled the same on the page, and only when they open their mouths to howl do you know they’re different.

Students who knew Hebrew taught the class how to pronounce זאב. We didn’t have any Northern Lushootseed speakers among us, but with the help of a Tulalip Lushootseed website we practiced pronouncing stiqayuʔ , admired the language’s shapes and sounds, and talked about places around Seattle we had seen or heard this native language of the first peoples of the Puget Sound.

Then we wrote our own animal poems, with an extra challenge to try having the animal we chose (or in some cases invented!) appear in the poem in at least two different languages. For some students a variety of languages became part of the title, or were part of an early brainstorm that may or may not have carried over to the final piece, while other students took off with the multilingual approach. This was also a fun excuse to explore some different language dictionaries I’d brought in, a first encounter with these tangible objects for many of the students. In fact, some students found it hard to get started on their poems because they were having so much fun inside the dictionaries, one word discovery leading to another. (I sympathize!)

Here are some of our animal-word discoveries, from the amazing poems by my four classes of McDonald International 3rd graders. (I wish there was room enough to share them all!)

Cat by Rosemary G. (Mrs. Roughton’s afternoon class)

As soon as you say this word
all the mice shiver

CAT

As soon as you say this word
the dogs snap and snarl

LE CHAT

Attacks the yarn with
a mischief in its eye

EL GATO

As soon as you say this word
there is no sign of a bird anywhere…

C-A-T

*          *          *

Rabbit Mania by Lucia B. (Ms. Oakley’s afternoon class)

RABBIT
The spring starts to fall
EL CONEJO
Moves like a Goddess Girl
USAGI 兎
Sounds like a leaping leopard
Whenever you say this word the icicles
start to fall
LE LAPIN
The Eiffel Tower starts to grow
k’ʷəčəldiʔ
Like I just went back in time.

*          *          *

Thundercat by Momoko H. (Ms. Oakley’s morning class)

As soon as you say this word Leopard, a blizzard starts,
somewhere no one knows.

This word Leopard
moves like thunder zapping through the clouds.

This word Leopard
sounds like a fire fighting with a storm.

Whenever you say this word, people open doors with fear.
This word fights, wins, and zaps
through the snow.
This word runs, eats, and cries with sadness.
Leopard.

*          *          * 

Things Change by Ellie B. (Mrs. Roughton’s morning class)

Hummingbird, le colibri, things change.
Languages, people, food, things change.
Hummingbirds fly into different places
and change their name.
They fly into different places,
they change feathers.
Things change. 

*          *          * 

Otter by Rockwell H. (Mrs. Roughton’s afternoon class)

As soon as you say
the word OTTER water
ripples. The word NUTRIA
moves like a cork on water.
The word OTTER sounds
like a small lost dog.
As soon as you say the word
NUTRIA, a splash
of water comes at your face.

*          *          *

 Fox by Mira A. (Ms. Oakley’s afternoon class)

As soon as you say this word
a light sheet of frost starts to cover the woods.

                              Fox

A fox slyly sneaks through the woods
with the moon shining down on its fur.

*          *          *

Slug by Henry P. (Ms. Oakley’s morning class)

As soon as you say this word it rains slime. Slug.
This word slug moves like a mushy banana.
This word slug sounds like kaslushbush.
Whenever you say this word the ground turns to mush.
This word leaves a trail of slime behind,
mushy stuff on the ground.
This word is moving slowly, a banana in its eyes.

*          *          *

Great White Shark by Henry L. (Mrs. Roughton’s morning class)

Swimming slowly heavy but
no bones shark silvery
smooth through the water
Shark sounds like
rubbing sticks and metal together
Shark prefers warmer
waters the perfect opportunity
and…. Pow! The fish torpedo
strikes again.

*          *          *

Octopus by Manny H. (Mrs. Roughton’s afternoon class)

As soon as you say this word
black liquid will make a mess.
Tako, a word of slyness,
like their slimy tentacles.
La pieuvre, as soon as you say
this word, someone is reading
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!

*          *          *

Gorilla by Siya M. (Ms. Oakley’s afternoon class)

As soon as you say this word Gorilla, everyone
is happy. This word bandit sounds like
a silly good clown laughing and chuckling.
This word is the wind rubbing
against your chin. Whenever
you say this word people are goofy.

*          *          *

Deer 鹿 Shika by Addie B. (Ms. Oakley’s morning class)

Deer, I am a blossoming cherry tree.
Deer, I move as fast as the wind.
Deer, I’m a bird calling its first chirp.
Deer, I am a lush green forest.
Deer, I am a seed sprout into.
Deer, I am an animal living in the wild.
Deer!

*          *          *

EAGLE / AQUILA by Belinda L. (Mrs. Roughton’s morning class)

As soon as you say this word EAGLE,
the sky turns blue.
This word EAGLE moves
like a bird flying swiftly.
This word AQUILA sounds
like the call of a beautiful bird.
Whenever you say this word
the leaves of a tall tree rustle.
This word AQUILA is always
heading towards the sky,
clouds, space.
In the trees of every forest
you will hear the call of the
EAGLE
AQUILA

*          *          *

MonkeyWhale / MonoBallena by Atticus S. (Mrs. Roughton’s afternoon class)

When the Monkeywhale moves on land
it moves like a monkey,
but when it moves in the water
it moves like a whale.
Monoballena. Cuando el monoballena come,
come bananas y agua.

Monkeywhale. When it talks it says,
“Ooaaooooaaaaooaa” and “aaaaaauuuuuuugggaaaa.”
Monoballena. Monkeywhale.

*          *          *

Porcupine / Le Porc-épic by Sally L. (Ms. Oakley’s afternoon class)

As soon as you say
this word porcupine
a tree sprouts up in the forest.
This word Le Porc-épic moves likes a squirrel
running away from a dog.
This word porcupine sounds like a sea urchin
that’s just been stepped on.
Whenever you say this word, someone screams in pain.
This word is hiding in a bush.
This word is glowing like the sun.

   *          *          *

Turtle by Donovan C. (Ms. Oakley’s morning class)

The word gets slower.
Step to step.
Nothing to be heard.
Step to step, walks across the ocean.
This word turtle
sees the world.

*          *          *

Seal Pup by Nera W. (Mrs. Roughton’s morning class)

Seal pup, Sello, is
the Queen of the snow.
It sounds like a bell ringing.
When you look at it,
it is hard to resist.
It is soft like velvet.

*          *          *

Puma by Santiago S. A. (Mrs. Roughton’s afternoon class)

Puma, el viento moviéndose al atardecer.
Puma, su pelo se mueve cuando corre detrás de su presa.
Puma, su rugido es silencioso para cachar su presa.
Cuando digo Puma, todos corren porque tienen miedo.
Puma ruge silenciosamente
Se acerca muy callado para agarrar su presa.
Puma come venado, ratones y conejos.
Él es muy rápido como el viento.

*          *          *

クマ / el oso / sčətxʷəd / My Bear by Ian B. (Ms. Oakley’s afternoon class)

A bear moving through the fields, moving
in the night sky. Bears stalking their prey
very slowly. I can hear my bear stomping.

In the night sky,
walking and walking. “Let’s go,”
yells my bear. I go to sleep. My bear.

*          *          *

Coyote by Victor V. C. (Ms. Oakley’s morning class)

Coyote, el coyote, コヨーテ, le coyote, sbiaw,
As soon as you say this word coyote,
a present will appear.

This word coyote moves like wolves
when it is fighting.
This word coyote sounds like “eip”
when it is excited.

Whenever you say this word coyote,
something is going bad.

*          *          *

Cougar クーガー by Ben C. (Mrs. Roughton’s morning class)

As soon as you say cougar a cliff falls.
The クーガー kūgā is a type
of Big Cat, a predator of prey,
it hunts swiftly it goes slow
and then speeds to the animal
and brings it to the ground.
The prey stays.
The cougar backs up a little.
The prey stays and then the cougar
comes close and drags it away.
クーガー kūgā

*          *          *

Fox by Hugo H. (Mrs. Roughton’s afternoon class)

As soon as you say this word
a spy slips away. Zorro moves
like a spy in the forest.
Kitsune sounds like an animal catching
its prey. Le renard moves
in the forest unseen.
Sxʷuʔxʷuʔ has the moon
in its eye.

*          *          *

Sloth / El Perezoso by Halen (Ms. Oakley’s afternoon class)

As soon as you say this word sloth,
everything turns slow.
This word sloth moves like a snail
that is sleeping.
This word sloth sounds like leaves
getting crunched by a car.
Whenever you say this word sloth,
people look to the trees.
This word sloth is a piece of sleeping.

*          *          *

Red Panda レッサーパンダ by Sage (Ms. Oakley’s morning class)

As soon as you say this word Red Panda,
you will feel like you are wrapped in fluffy fur.

This word red panda moves like little paws
going across frozen water.

This word Red Panda sounds like my cat
purring next to me.

Whenever you say this word you will feel
really happy like the sun.

This word Red Panda is bouncing up and down.
This word is walking steadily across a lake.
This word is dancing.

This word Red Panda is fluffy and warm.

*          *          *

Dolphin / Dauphin / Delfín by Livvy K. (Mrs. Roughton’s morning class)

As soon as you say this word
dolphin, a camera comes out.
This word dolphin moves
like a tiny whale.
This word dolphin sounds
like pretty earrings.
Whenever you say this word dolphin
a wave crashes down on the beach.
This word jumps, talks, and is joyful.
This word has kindness in its eyes. 


nelson-copySierra Nelson is a poet, cephalopod appreciator, and co-founder of performance art groups The Typing Explosion and Vis-à-Vis Society. Her lyrical choose-your-own-adventure, I Take Back the Sponge Cake with artist Loren Erdrich, debuted from Rose Metal Press in Spring 2012 and her chapbook “In Case of Loss” from Toadlily Press in Fall 2012.

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