|Bilingual road signs in Corsica with |
the French names crossed out and
the Corsu names showing beneath them.
UNESCO classifies Corsu as a potentially
endangered language. (Photo by skender)
I love learning word trivia, particularly when it makes me think about cultural roots, histories, psychology, and etymology. There’s a term for this in the linguistics field, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which basically says your language affects your world view.
Consider what some of these vignettes might say about their cultures:
- Pirahã is an ancient language spoken by an indigenous people who live along a tributary, the Maici River, along the Amazon. Pirahãs themselves number only between 250 and 380 speakers, and it’s believed they’re monolingual. As well, theirs is a “language isolate,” which means it has no known connection to any other living languages.
What’s fascinating is how simple Pirahãs keep things. They have the fewest words to describe kinship than any other culture. The word baíxi represents both mother and father (essentially meaning parent), and they don’t have words to represent any other relatives beyond their immediate siblings. (Talk about a nuclear family!) They use the same word for the numbers one and two, distinguished only by the tone in which the word is spoken; all other numbers are represented as either a few or many. Pirahãs don’t have words for colors either, distinguishing them only as light or dark.
- Aymara, the ancient indigenous language of the Andes (spoken by more than two million in Bolivia, Peru, and Chile), has a unique and rare expression of time. It doesn’t have a future tense but instead represents the past as in front of them and the future as behind them. While that sounds confusing and perhaps impossible, consider expressions in English: “Let’s prepare for what lies before us” or “We face an uncertain future.”
- In Indonesia, verbs never change to express time. Whether it happened before, is happening now, or will happen later, the verb tense remains the same. On the other hand, the Yagua language of Peru uses five verb tenses – one for something that happened within the last few hours, one for the day before, another for something that occurred within the past few weeks, another for an occurrence at least two months ago but less than a couple years, and another for anything that happened longer ago than that.
- Speakers of Japanese and Spanish are thought to base their verb tenses on intent. If you meant to do it, you “pushed” a cup off the table. But if you did it accidentally, “it fell” (so presumably you had nothing to do with it). I’m not sure this is as rare a linguist feature as it might sound. We use a lot of passive voice in English as well, especially when trying to deflect blame. Think of official corporate statements and government speak.
- About a third of the world’s languages have no concept of right or left. Instead, they use directional language (east, west, south, north) for everything. We might lay out a series of photos, for example, from left to right (or as Hebrew speakers might explain it, right to left.) But many cultures would describe them as west to east. One reason is because navigation is so much more important in these cultures than for us. For example, even small children of the Australian aboriginals, the Thaayores, learn early how to find their way around.
- In English, blue describes an overall color. In Russian, there’s no one word encompassing the color but numerous words for shades of it (such as light, very light, dark, navy, steel, etcetera).
- In fact, many languages do not distinguish between the colors blue and green (such as Thai, Welsh, and the African language, Tswana) or have a single word that can describe either (as in Korean and Chinese). In Vietnamese, both the sky and the leaves of a tree are xanh (pronounced “grue”). They might say “leaf grue” or “ocean grue” to distinguish the shade, but the overall color is still the same. In Japanese, the word for blue (ao) is often used for the word many English speakers would think of as green (such as the color representing “go” on a traffic signal).
- Some languages use gender to describe things, though not consistently across languages. So in German, the word for moon is male and sun female, while French, Spanish, and Hindi use the inverse, with a female moon and a male sun. In other languages, such as Farsi, pronoun articles are gender neutral. Then there are those, such as Danish, where articles can be male, female, or neutral. And curiously, gender-free objects in Danish can take either of two kinds of articles: en (the equivalent of “an” in English) or et (“it”) and den or det (as in “the” or “it”). As one Dane told me, “there’s no rhyme or reason for it—you just have to memorize which one to use.”