Saturday, August 13, 2005

Endangered languages

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?


Emily Lloyd said...

Mmmm, Anne, not answering your question but recommending a wonderful book: Spoken Here: Travels Among Threated Languages by Mark Abley. I love Boro's onsra--who wouldn't?--and there is also a Boro verb meaning "to fall in a well unknowingly" (gobray). And Yuchi! A language and (currently) very small tribe living in northeastern Oklahoma; look how beautiful the compound nouns: the word for railroad translates to "wagon burns inside its road"--for lemon, "peach big yellow sour ones."

Emily Lloyd said...

Erg. That's Threatened, not threated.

Diane K. Martin said...

Well, in light of the Eskimo's many words for snow, it would be nice to have different words for son or daughter at different ages. I look at my baby pics of my son and the little boy pics and the high school pics, and I called him my son then, and of course, he is now, but 23 and towering over me and engaged to be married....

Pamela said...

This is an intriguing post, and for some reason, I'm reminded of a book by Peter Hoeg. In Smilla's Sense of Snow, Smilla has a precise knowledge of both the spiritual and the scientific properties of snow and ice. She knows this because she's the product of two distinct cultures--she's the point where disparate knowledge/cultures/language intersect. I'm interested in writing that explores this intersection. I'm going to check out the books you've recommended when I have access to the university library next week.

I don't recommend the movie made from Hoeg's novel (lovely as Gabriel Byrne and Julia Ormond are in it) but I can highly recommend the book. Smilla's one of my favorite literary curmudgeons--how can you NOT adore a character who says,"I think more highly of snow and ice than love." Smilla might be the real Snow Queen.

the machinist said...

sex--so many different kinds!

Anne said...

Em and Pamela, thanks for the book recommendations! I'll put 'em on my list. If I had another life, I might go back and study linguistics -- this stuff is just fascinating.

Diane, aren't there some cultures in which people adopt new names at certain ages? It seems like I read that somewhere. It makes sense -- though having different names for the relationship (son/daughter) makes even more sense in a way.

Woody, true that! And having different words would make life so much easier -- when someone propositioned you, you'd know exactly what it was that was being offered. Maybe. :)

early hours of sky said...

I speak Boro.

My daughters and I have our own language we spend large amounts of time in the car, talking back and forth. There is no dictionary, no verb agreement. It is the sound of the voice carried back & forth and back & forth which makes basic sense to us. It's hard for me to believe that they will someday grow so old we will not do this.

A. D. said...


Ours is an endangered language. Don't you think?

Lyle Daggett said...

Modern American (United Statesean) standard English has at least as many words for money as any language has for snow, or sand, or water, or wind...

On the other hand, we could definitely use some words for sex, genital body parts, and a lot of related things and concepts, that are neither gutter words nor sanitary clinical words, just "ordinary" words, the way hand, eye, foot, mouth are ordinary words. Clearly there would be some culture to get through to get to that point.

The Story of Language by Mario Pei is a great wide-roaming (and not highly technical) exploration of languages, how they work, a little of their history, how they are distributed around the world, etc. Another book, They Have a Word for It (can't remember the author, published sometime in the '80's I think) gives a sampling of words in other languages (from all over the place) for concepts that English doesn't have single convenient words for.

A friend who is descended (through a grandfather) from Romany ("Gypsy") people says that a Romany person commonly will have a least three names (and I think/hope I'm remembering this right): one that is their general "public" name known to everyone; one that is whispered into their ear at birth by their mother, and is known only to the two of them; and one that they pick for themselves, whenever they reach the age or the point in life when the name is typically chosen.

Anne said...

T - I bet that language will always be there with you & your daughters -- they'll just refuse to acknowledge it, at least in public, for a few years. "Awwww, MOM!" My mom and her twin sister have conversations nobody else understands, but they don't even realize nobody else can follow them. It's cute.

A.D. - if you mean poetry, then maybe ... though I think there are a lot of us stubborn folks out here keeping it alive. Or maybe I just want to think that.

Lyle - excellent point about money. I guess you can tell what we (collectively) care about, hm? And thanks for the book recommendations!

junebee said...

I wish English was more like Mandarin Chinese, which has very specific words for family members. In English, we just have "cousin" or "sister". In Chinese the whole word is different depending if the sister is younger than you or older than you, and as far as the cousin, it has different words for male and female, older and younger, and cousins united by a common male ancestor. This is a very descriptive and detailed way of talking
about family relationships.

Also, English should have different
words for different types of love. This is probably the biggest lack in English. Romantic love can mean anything from being more than fond of a newfound partner, to years of committment, hardship and joy experienced together. "Love" is way too vague to describe them all.

I want to look for that Mario Pei book, I love reading about words and languages.

Pris said...

This is a fascinating post. Another thing that's fading out besides languages is the accent of different regions and expressions peculiar to the area. In the sixties, I could hear a Southern accent and pretty much narrow down which state the person came from. Now it's a lot harder with all of the moving around. I still miss hearing 'gimme some sugah' and phrases like that.