Interesting article in the new IU alumni magazine about endangered languages -- languages currently spoken by so few people they are in danger of dying out -- being pushed aside by the "predator languages" such as English, Spanish, Chinese, and Hindi. Some of the languages discussed in the article are Lakota (Sioux Indians), Efutu (spoken in part of Ghana), and Yiddish.
As anyone who writes probably instinctively understands, a concept for which you have no language effectively doesn't exist for you. When languages are lost, sometimes concepts die off with them, entire ways of thinking and of seeing the world. The classic example, of course, is the Eskimo language that has a whole bunch of different words for snow. How many of us look at snow and just say "snow" when, if we had the words for it, we could see that it was granular crunchy snow, or fluffy soft snow, or snow that comes as a complete surprise? How many of us would recognize all the kinds of love in our lives if we only had the words for them? And all the kinds of hunger, all the kinds of joy?
The article has a sidebar with facts about a few of the world's endangered languages. I thought these two were especially poignant:
Mohawk, one of the more famous North American Indian languages, is polysynthetic. That is to say, every verb must describe the action, the agent, the recipient, and the time of action. For example, the English phrase, "I am currently bringing the sugar to someone," is a single word in Mohawk: "tkhetsikhetenhawihtennihs."
Boro, a language spoken in northeastern India, has some of the world's most descriptive verbs. These include onsra: to love for the last time; gagrom: to search for something below water by trampling; and egthu: to create a pinching sensation in the armpit.
Of course, this is why we write poems -- to describe the things for which normal language is hopelessly inadequate.
What concept or action do you wish your language had one single word to describe?