If you want to tell someone where to ‘go’ in the dying language of the Monchak, you’d better have an intimate knowledge of the river currents in Mongolia, because that’s how the verb ‘go’ is expressed in Monchak: upstream or downstream a bit or a bunch, never mind that there’s no stream in sight, or maybe there are a lot of streams going every which way. In Tofa, a dying Siberian language, that reptile you hope not to step on as you ‘go’ is called a ground fish, not the slithering terror we know as a snake.
‘Different languages force their speakers to pay attention to different things,’ says K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore and author of ‘When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge,’ published this year by Oxford University Press.
Dr. Harrison and his colleagues on National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project identified five regions last week with the largest concentration of languages facing extinction. In addition to eastern Siberia, they are northern Australia, central South America, the upper Pacific coastal zone of North America, and Oklahoma and the Southwest United States.
‘A dictionary is a monument to human genius,’ says Dr. Harrison, and it is the erosion of that monument that is his chief lament when, about every two weeks, one of the world’s 7,000 or so languages falls out of use. It’s not that you can’t express any idea in any language, he says, but rather that the ‘information packaging’ differs with each language. Certainly thinking of a snake as a fish out of water is unique packaging.
Dr. Harrison offers the following sampling from a vanishing world dictionary.
From Monchak, which has fewer than 1,000 speakers:
choktaar to go upstream or in a direction opposite the current in the nearest river
badaar to go downstream or in a direction that matches the direction of the current in the nearest river
kezer to cut, or to go in a direction that would be cross-stream, based on the nearest river
From Rotokas, a language of Papua New Guinea with about 4,300 speakers. Rotokas doubles parts of words to derive new meanings:
tapa to hit
tapatapa to hit repeatedly
kopi a dot
kavau to bear a child
kavakavau to bear many children
From Eleme, a language of Nigeria with 58,000 speakers. Eleme doubles part of a verb to negate it:
moro he saw you
momoro he did not see you
rekaju we are coming
rekakaju we are not coming
From Nivkh, a language of Siberia with fewer than 300 speakers. Nivkh uses different words for numbers depending on what is being counted:
men two, if counting people
merakh two, if counting thin, flat objects like leaves
mirsh two, if counting paired things like skis or mittens
mer two, if counting batches of dried fish
mim two, if counting boats
mor two, if counting animals
From the Marovo language of the Solomon Islands, with about 8,000 speakers. The Marovo people are especially keen observers of fish behavior:
ukuka the behavior of groups of fish when individuals drift, circle and float as if drunk
udumu a large school of fish so dense as to seem like a single object
sakoto quiet, almost motionless resting of schools of certain fish, which fishermen say look like a gathering of mourners
From the Pomo language of California, with fewer than 10 speakers. The Pomo excelled at basket weaving, hunting and fur trading, and count with sticks. Dr. Harrison quoted an anthropologist early in the 20th century who admired the Pomo ability to calculate large sums: ‘Their arithmetical faculties must have been highly developed.’ Below 20, the Pomo had unique names for numbers:
For 20 and above, the Pomo combine number names with ‘stick’ or ‘big stick.’ For 61, the Pomo would say xómk’a-xày k’áli, combining xómk’a, meaning three, with xày, meaning stick, and k’áli. Some Pomo numbers:
20 one stick
61 three sticks and one
100 five sticks
400 one big stick
500 one big stick and five sticks
4,000 10 big sticks
From Tofa, in Siberia, with fewer than 30 speakers. Tofa uses a 13-month lunar calendar with months named for hunter-gatherer activities:
teshkileer ay Roughly February, or hunting animals on skis month
ytalaar ay March, hunting with dogs month
eki tozaar ay April, good birch-bark-collecting month
aynaar ay August, digging edible lily bulbs month
chary eter ay October, rounding up castrated male reindeer month
As nomadic reindeer herders, the Tofa have quite a few words relating to reindeer:
myndyzhak a 2-year-old female reindeer that is ready for first mating
chary a 5-year-old male castrated reindeer that can be ridden
More posts by this author:
- Classical Language Studies
- Dr Kalyanaraman’s Eureka Moment
- Indian languages: further questions
- On the antiquity of Dravidian scripts.
- Just wishing
After R & D and technical management experience of over three decades in petroleum and organic chemical industry, have been devoting the past fifteen years to the study of Tamil and Sanskrit classics, including dharmic works and doing some serious translation work. Have been a significant contributor to the medha journal almost since its inception upto 2013 and expect to continue my association with it.