Kij Johnson’s “Coyote Invents the Land of the Dead” is a mythic tale of love and loss that I found engrossing, in part because of the strange, evocative language. Johnson plays with sound and form, and Kate Baker’s narration of the piece brings that playfulness to life. It’s an entirely different experience listening to the story than only reading it.
One part of the story that struck me was Johnson’s creation of onomatopoetic verbs to describe the sounds of the seashells (emphasis mine):
The sand around her was heaped everywhere with mounded massy dark shells, pyramided into black piles as high as her waist, and over the sand/water-whisper the piles chirked when a crawling wave touched them.
Dee pushed the shells aside with her feet as she walked, and they chunkled against one another.
It’s such an evocative shorthand, one that recurs throughout the story: chirked, chunkled, skrankles, chirking, chirpling, chinkering, chirtling, chirtle, skankling. Removing morphology like -ed and -ing and transcribing the words in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) according to my and Kate Baker’s general U.S. accents produces the following pronunciation list:1
Fricatives like <s>2 and affricates like <ch> create grating sounds, while stops like <p>, <t>, and <k> mimic the sound of seashells colliding. Also notable are the vowel choices—<i> and <a>, perhaps to mimic the ringing and clanging of the shells, like windchimes in a beach breeze.
I’m not sure what to make of the strong use of <r>, though. There was an instance of the existing onomatopoeia “chirp” in the text, so perhaps the use of <r> echoes that. <r> also lowers the vocal quality of the <i>, lending some auditory variation between words like “chirk” versus “chinker.” <l> could have a similar effect, but I can’t be sure with only this cursory analysis.
I’d love to do a more in-depth study of diction, word choice, and sound choice in this piece, as there’s such a melodic quality to it, but that amount of work as I envision it is beyond my capacity at the moment. 😅 Just thought I’d show some appreciation for the piece by pointing out a particular aspect of it that I enjoyed.
If you have any further thoughts, I’d love to hear them in the comments below 😄!