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Spring 2018

Thatho Ilpa Innihta

How the Coushatta describe Good Friday

Published: October 17, 2022
Last Updated: October 17, 2022

Thatho Ilpa Innihta

Photo by Kimberly Vardeman, Wikimedia Commons

The term “Thatho Ilpa Innihta” [ła-ło il-pa in-ni-hta] comes from the Koasati Native American language, translates to “fish eat day,” and is the term for the Christian day of fasting called Good Friday. Koasati is the Native American language still spoken by the Coushatta tribe in Elton, Louisiana, and the Alabama-Coushatta tribe in southeast Texas. Although the number of fluent speakers hovers around four hundred, the language represents a success story of language revitalization.

Since 2007, the tribe has received more than $2 million for language revitalization work through a Documenting Endangered Language (DEL) grant. The DEL grant, jointly sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation, funds projects that assist in protecting endangered human languages. Through grant support, and with considerable community input, the Koasati language community has developed a writing system, a dictionary, a grammar, and a language council that discusses and codifies neologisms and other language issues. The tribal language center has also produced an online dictionary app, an online language course, and an immersion camp. For example, McNeese State University students can take a summer immersion course for college credit.

One of the first challenges for English speakers learning Koasati is the barred “l” sound, represented by the letters “th.” The word “thatho,” meaning fish, can serve as a shibboleth, as the barred “l” is a sound not found in English. It is pronounced by positioning your tongue to say an “l,” but then blowing air out of the sides of your tongue to make a cheeky raspberry sound. According to the Koasati dictionary, “it sounds a little like ‘th’ or ‘thl,’ or like ‘l’ in the word ‘clear.’” Muskogean languages Choctaw and Chickasaw use this sound. It is also a feature in the Athabaskan Native American languages of Ahtna and Tanacross. In addition to its pronunciation challenges for non-native speakers, Thatho Ilpa Innihta provides an interesting perspective on Catholicism. The Koasati were introduced to Catholicism through colonization and missionary contact. After Koasati speakers were brought into contact with the rite of Good Friday, the community made a new term to codify that specific experience. “Fish eat day” not only defines the experience for the Koasati but also illuminates that community’s perception of another group’s religious traditions. The ability to create and canonize new words is a vital function of living languages. The Good Friday neologism—Thatho Ilpa Innihta—represents the efforts of a community of passionate tribal members, researchers, and federal funders who support the continued use of the Koasati language.

Hali Dardar is a member of the United Houma Nation and co-founder of the Houma Language Project. She holds a BA in print journalism from Louisiana State University, an MA in arts, culture, and media from Rijksuniversiteit, and currently works as the Language Vitality Project Coordinator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.