Browsed by
Category: Endangered languages

Sign language mythbusters

Sign language mythbusters

We have all heard of sign languages. Most of us have seen people talking to each other using their hands and body movements instead of the voice: on the street, at a train station, or in a noisy café. We probably even felt a slight jolt of envy, thinking about how much easier it must be for them to communicate, when they are surrounded by loud music, laughter, and chatter. Curiously, however, very few people know what sign languages actually are. Unless you are a sign language user and/or a linguist, you probably have a lot of misconceptions about their nature. For this reason, linguists who write about sign languages, often begin their books with a discussion of myths and misconceptions. For example, Robin Battinson wrote a section on misconceptions about ASL, Trevor Johnston and Adam Schembri covered the same topic on the data of Australian Sign Language, Vadim Kimmelman and Svetlana Burkova discussed common mistakes in light of Russian Sign Language. Let us follow their example and bust a few myths!

Myth №1 There is only one sign language

Perhaps, the most mind-blowing thing about sign languages is that there is more than one. Indeed, if we never encountered sign languages in action, we most probably have a default assumption that there is one sign language, and everyone is using it. Why would you need more? Surely, at some point, someone came up with a list of signs for different objects and actions, and now all deaf and hard-of-hearing people use them.

“That Deaf Guy” comic by Matt & Kay Daigle

This is not true. Nowadays, we know about not one, not even ten, but one hundred and seventy different sign languages spread around the world. And it is very possible that there are other sign languages we are not even yet aware of. Check out the map from Glottolog, that provides a catalogue of the world’s languages:

Sign languages of the world

Each dot in this map represents a language with its own vocabulary and grammatical structure. The yellow dots are sign languages that developed in urban settings. The blue dots are so-called ‘rural’ sign languages that appeared in small village communities with a high rate of hereditary deafness. Finally, the rare red dots are ‘secondary sign languages’. These languages developed in hearing societies as a substitute for spoken languages in certain situations.

Yes, 170 sign languages is a much more modest amount than roughly 6500 spoken languages, but it is definitely more than one. Now, let’s reflect on what sign languages actually are.

Myth №2 Sign languages are a kind of pantomime

Who likes Charades? In this classic team game, you need to enact a title of a book or a movie without saying a single word. Some of these titles can be quite tricky. Have you ever tried to mime “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”? So, we put forward our best improvisation techniques and we create quite complicated sequences of body movements in order to express the idea we need.

Sign languages do the same thing, don’t they? They express different ideas with movements of the hands and other parts of the body. So, maybe sign languages and pantomime are in fact the same thing? Well, no, not really. You see, one very important feature of a pantomime is transparency. We are usually able to guess what is going on without anyone translating it for us. Sign languages are not so generous. Try to make sense of this short video in Russian Sign Language. I can even give you a hint: the title of this video is ‘Miracles of dog training’.

A short story ‘Miracles of dog training’ in Russian Sign Language

If you are not familiar with Russian Sign Language, you probably didn’t understand that an unlucky man, the main character of this tale, tried to teach his dog to bring him a stick. The dog didn’t quite grasp the concept and instead started bringing him umbrellas, which it would steal from unsuspecting passers-by.

Why is it so hard to understand a sign language? Let me answer this with a counterquestion: why we would expect it to be easy? Well, this assumption stems from the phenomenon called ‘iconicity’. A lot of signs in sign languages look like what they describe. For example, if you watch the video about the dog training again, you will easily find a sign for ‘holding a stick in a mouth’. A tricky thing about iconicity, however, is that it is evident once you know what the sign means. But can you guess a meaning of an iconic sign? Let’s give it a go! Here is a sign in Russian Sign Language. Can you guess what it means?

An iconic sign in Russian Sign Language

If you are done guessing, here is the answer. This sign means ‘empty’. Once we know this, it seems obvious that a person in this video imitates looking for something in an empty bag. But it is really hard to guess it beforehand.

Another reason for the non-transparency of sign languages is that, unlike pantomime improvised on the spot, sign languages have quite complex rules for forming sentences. Speaking of sentences, let’s bust another widespread myth that has to do with sign language structure.

Myth №3 Sign languages are spoken languages articulated with hands

Many people assume that sign languages are not independent languages, but instead are signed versions of spoken languages. For example, British, American and Australian Sign Languages are signed versions of English, French Sign Language is a version of French, Russian Sign Language is a version of Russian, and so on. From this point of view, if someone wanted to express a sentence in English with something other than their voice, they could write it down or sign in instead.

However, this is not the case. Many aspects of sign languages are completely unrelated to spoken languages that surround them. Trevor Johnston and Adam Schembri provide a good illustration of this using Australian Sign Language as an example. The English word light has several meanings, such as ‘not heavy’ (as in a light bag), ‘pale’ (as in a light colour), or ‘energy from the sun or lamp that allows us to see things’ (as in turn on the light). Although in English all these meanings are expressed with the same word, they would be translated to Australian Sign Language with three different signs.

Australian Sign Language translations for the English word “light”

Of course, this is not the only kind of difference between sign and spoken languages. Grammars are different too. Sign languages do not have articles, such as a and the in English, or case marking, like Russian Genitive or Dative. They don’t mark plurality and past tense with special endings. Instead, they have their own ways to express time and quantity related information. Many of them revolve around iconicity. But this is a topic for a different post. Stay tuned!

Lost in Translationː the Morph team’s top 10 untranslatable words

Lost in Translationː the Morph team’s top 10 untranslatable words

To celebrate the end of UNESCOs International Year of Indigenous Languages we thought we would take a look at some of the Indigenous languages that we are researching and present some of our favourite words. Now these words just aren’t any old words, they are words that can’t be directly translated into English using a single word and must be translated using a rather long-winded explanation. Each of these words offer unique cultural insights into the speakers of these languages. We will be skipping across the continents to all the exciting places where we conduct our research…

South Sudan and Ethiopia
Our first stop on our world tour of untranslatable words is to South Sudan and Ethiopia where two closely related West Nilotic languages are spoken – Nuer and Reel. The Nuer tribe is one of the largest ethnic groups in South Sudan with around a million or so speakers. Whereas Reel is spoken by around 50,000 speakers from the Atwot tribe.

The Nuer and Atwot peoples are traditionally pastoralists. Cattle play an important role in every aspect of the traditional life. The Nuer and Atwot also rely to some extent on horticulture for their living. They lead a semi-nomadic life style determined by the availability of pasture grounds.

Speakers of Reel in Juba, South Sudan

1. tɛ́ɛt ‘to claim something back that was previously given out for good’

The Nuer verb tɛ́ɛt roughly translates as ‘to claim something back that was previously given out for good’. It is used in the situations when an item has been given to someone for good but then later the item is being recalled back. For example, it is customary to give cattle to the parents of a bride. If, for some reason, the couple wants to separate, the cattle have to be returned before the woman can go back to her parents.

2. wé̤eer ‘search by parting something’

The next word comes from Nuer’s neighbours – The Reel speaking Atwot tribe. The verb wé̤eer translates as ‘search by parting something’. This word is used when the searching involves moving apart items that sit together densely as, for example, maize or bushes.

è-wé̤eer				dṳ̂t	old.grass.PL
‘S/he is searching by parting old grass.’

Moving on to Central Asia and to the largest landlocked country in the world. Kazakh is the national language of Kazakhstan, though also spoken in Xinjiang province of China and in parts of Mongolia.

3. Tusau Keser ‘the cutting of the tether’

One of the first Kazakh rituals that a child goes through is Tusau Keser (Тұсау кесер) – which means ’the cutting of the tether’. When a young Kazakh starts to walk, their parents organize a party and the child’s legs are tied together with colourful threads. This colourful tether is then cut to welcome the child to the next stage of their life.

It is believed that if the Tusau Keser ceremony is not performed, the child will be unlucky or have problems walking in their adulthood. In some parts of Kazakhstan they tie the legs with the fatty intestines of a horse, which – in case you were wondering – represents wealth!

The Tusau Keser ceremony

The beginnings of this ceremony lie in the pastoral culture of the Kazakhs. The legs of young horses and sheep are tethered in order to tame them and only cut when they are old enough not to wonder away from the rest of the animals. Therefore, the day an animal’s tusau ‘tether’ is cut is meant to be the beginning of a new life stage.

4. Süyinshi ’be happy’
Süyinshi (сүйінші) literally means ’be happy’, but this word is used only in one specific situation. If something really great has happened to someone and they want to share the good news with their friends, they have to shout süyinshi before telling everyone the news. What’s great about this word is that when someone shouts süyinshi, the friends get to ask for any kind of present they want from the person shouting süyinshi. Normally this mini ritual starts with friends asking for houses, cars or livestock, and then ends up in the pub where the vodka is bought for the friends instead.

On the other side of the Caspian Sea in the Caucuses lies Dagestan where one of the SMG’s favourite languages lies – Archi. With only around 1300 speakers, Archi is considered an endangered language.

5. biční ‘lower corner of a sack or bag’

Not only are the Archi people famous for their lamb due to proximity of lush alpine pastures, but they also make rather beautiful bags called tus:əra. The lower corners of these handmade bags have a special term – biční. The corners of larger sacks, used for carrying grain, were the best place to hold on to upend and pour out the contents. The corners of the smaller bags are also embellished with rather beautiful tassles. What’s even more interesting about these corners is that one corner is called biční, but two corners are called boʒdo. Archi uses a different word form (known as a suppletive form) for the plural. This goes against the claim that suppletives are only used for frequently occurring words, with the lower corner of a bag probably not cropping up in many everyday conversations.

one biční, two boʒdo

These beautiful bags were originally used in everyday life, but nowadays they are reserved for traditional ceremonies. At wakes these bags are filled with traditional foods such as sweetmeats.

Skipping across to the South Pacific and to most linguistically dense place in the world – the archipelago of Vanuatu. The Oceanic language of North Ambrym, with around 5000 speakers, not only has interesting possessive classifiers but also a whole host of culturally specific and directly untranslatable words. The Ni-Vanuatu (people from Vanuatu) are self-sufficient farmers with plenty of land to grow yams, manioc, bananas and raise pigs.

6. fafar ‘to wipe your bottom on a tree trunk’

By far this is my favourite word from North Ambrym. if there are no suitable leaves around after doing your business in the bush it makes sense to use a tree trunk. Of course, not every tree trunk can be used for this sort of thing. Please avoid large and knobbly trunks – slender smooth trunks are advisable!

7. yangyangne ‘to shoot an arrow to follow its course in order to find a lost arrow’

Not paying attention when you were off shooting wild birds in the jungle with your arrows? Well shoot another one with the same power and in the same direction and make sure you pay attention this time and you may find your lost arrow. Bad golfers could probably use this trick to find their lost balls in the rough!

A bow and arrow from northern Ambrym

Now off to eastern Siberia and to the Tungisic language of Negidal which sadly only has a handful of speakers left.

8. un’i ‘be upset, get ill because someone ate in your presence and did not offer to share the food’


You should stay away from scrooges this Christmas as it would be a shame if someone ate a mouth-watering turkey roast with all the trimmings in front of you and did not offer you anyǃ Negidal speakers can also use this verb in other situations, not just for when people eat food in front of you. Un’I can be used for any unfulfilled desire which makes you ill, such as wanting to smoke a cigarette when there are none left or from wanting to see a close friend who is far away. The depression that you feel can be so great sometimes that it is said that you can die from it.

Seeing as Christmas is almost upon us what better place to end our untranslatable journey than in Lapland and the language of Skolt Saami. Skolt Saami is spoken in the far northeast of Finland with only around 300 speakers. Traditionally the Skolt Saami are reindeer herders, which is still important to this day. The Skolt Saami have many specific terms for their reindeer.

9. saʹmjaʹd ‘black reindeer’

The word sa’mja’d isn’t made up of the words for black and reindeer in the language and is a specific word that describes black reindeer. If you want to talk about reindeer in general then you would use puäʒʒ, and the word for black is čaʹppes.

10. čiõrmiǩ ‘one year old reindeer’

Only the strong survive in Lapland and there is even a special term for those strong young reindeer who make it through their first year.

With many words for the different types of reindeer we were hoping to find one that meant ‘reindeer with a red nose’, but sadly couldn’t find oneǃ

Merry Christmas from all of us at MORPHǃ

With thanks to Marina Chumakina, Tatiana Reed, Dávid Györfi, Tim Feist and Greville Corbett for their contributions.

What do we lose when we lose a language?

What do we lose when we lose a language?

By the end of this century we are likely to lose half of the world’s six thousand languages. With each lost language a whole world of thought, customs, traditions, poems, songs, jokes, myths, legends and history gets lost. Knowledge of local plants, herbs, mushrooms and berries, their medicinal and culinary uses disappears, together with names for small rivers, mountains, valleys and forests. And this is only a tiny fragment of what we lose when we lose a language.

For a linguist, a loss of a language is first and foremost a loss of system with a unique set of properties and rules which make it work. If there are any universal principles behind the architecture of human language, our only hope to figure them out is by studying the multitude of languages still existing on the planet. And endangered languages – those that we were lucky enough to have time and resources to study – show us time and again how vast is the range of linguistic variability. For example, it has been thought and stated by linguists and psychologists that grammatical tense can be marked by verbs only, as hundreds and hundreds of languages behave this way. Then we discovered that Kayardild, a morbidly endangered language of Australia, marks tense on nouns as well as verbs, making us reconsider this ‘universal’.

Archi, a language spoken in one village the highlands of Daghestan (Caucasus, Russia), is an endangered language which I have been working on since 2004. There are only about 1300 speakers of this language and, as far as we know, there never have been more than that. Yet for centuries it was spoken in the Archi village (below) and passed to younger generations without being under any threat.

Being so small, there was never a writing system invented for Archi – people in the village did not need to write to each other, and all communication with the outsiders happened in one of the larger languages of the area. Until the 1940s this was Lak, then Avar (two large languages of Daghestan), and in the past 40 years, these have been increasingly replaced by Russian. Archi people lived a hard but self-sufficient life keeping sheep in the mountains for themselves and for trading (the alpine pastures within walking distance of Archi village make their lamb hard to compete with) and growing grains, mostly rye, on terraces: narrow strips of land dug into the steep mountain slopes. These grains were just for their own consumption, as it was too hard a job to grow any more than they needed to survive.

We cannot even say that the arrival of television, mobile phones and the internet – which happened more or less at the same time in Archi – is responsible for language decline. It is just that  life in the mountains is very hard, so the Archi people start moving to the cities, abandoning their traditional way of life and their language. Since I started working with Archi, two of the village’s primary schools have been closed and others are struggling as young people continue to leave. Kids abandon Archi as soon as they go to school or nursery in town, and their parents tend to follow suit. Older people in the village still wear traditional dress and keep up traditional skills, but the younger generation is moving away from these traditions. And when the last school closes in the village and no more children live there, the language’s fate will be sealed.

What will we lose once Archi is lost? We will lose a verbal system which boasts the largest number of verb forms registered – Archi verb has up to 1.5 million forms. With this, we will forever lose the opportunity to figure out how the human brain can operate such a humongous system; we won’t be able to watch children learning such a complex language, going through stages of acquisition, making telling mistakes and the overgeneralisations (like English kids do when they go through the stage of producing forms like goed, readed, telled, eated etc). We will have the knowledge that a system such as the Archi verb existed, but we will never know how it functioned.

We will lose a system of deictic pronouns (like English ‘this’ and ‘that’) which had five words in it. These mark not just the proximity to the speaker (like English this), but also the perspective of the listener, and the vertical position in regard to the speaker (see below). Even if these are not unique as lexical items, the whole linguistic system in which they operate is unique. We don’t know yet how these pronouns work in stories as opposed to conversation, and at the moment we have no good techniques to find this out.

jat this, close to the speaker
jamut ‘this, close to the hearer’
tot ‘that, far away from the speaker’
godot ‘that, far away and lower than the speaker’
ʁodot  (the first sound is a bit like the French pronunciation of r) ‘that, far away and higher than the speaker’


We will lose a system where subject and object in the sentence work differently from what we are used to in European languages. In most European languages, the subjects of transitive and intransitive verbs have the same form (as in He arrived and He brought her along), while the object gets a different marking  (She arrived vs. He brought her along). In Archi, the subject of an intransitive verb such as ‘arrive’ is marked the same as the object of a transitive verb such as ‘bring’:

Tuw qa ‘he arrived’

Tormi tuw χir uwli ‘She brought him’.

This is called Ergative-Absolutive alignment, and was first brought to the attention of  linguists by the Australian language Dyirbal, which is now already dead. Several other linguistic families of the world use the same way of making sentences, including Archi. As not many Dyirbal materials have been recorded, it is Archi and other endangered Daghestanian languages that have been making linguists reconsider universals about subject, object and verb relations.

This is only a glimpse of the impact that endangered languages have on linguistics as a discipline. In the last few decades, linguists have become much more aware of how invaluable endangered languages are and how fragile their futures, and more and more efforts are now directed to documenting and – whenever possible – preserving the linguistic diversity of the world.