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Are words all different? Or are they all the same?

Are words all different? Or are they all the same?

Imagine we have less than a life-time to describe the words of a given language. We might start from the view that each individual word is a treasure to be described in exquisite detail. Indeed, it is one of the achievements of our field that linguists have found and described gems like the following:

  • Archi (Dagestan) has the word t’uq’ˤ. which is a stone post inside an underground sheepfold, which supports the stone roof.
In Archi the t’uq’ˤ is the stone posts supporting the roof of a sheepfold (Photo credit: Dr. Marina Chumakina).
  • Soq (Papua New Guinea) has the verb s- ‘stay’, which is anti-irregular. While typical irregular verbs (like English go ∼ went) have unexpected forms but mean ‘the right thing’ (went means ‘go in the past’), the Soq verb s- ‘stay’ is the opposite of that. Its forms are unremarkable, but uniquely in the language, its present tense covers the time period of the English present (‘now’). All other verbs have a present tense (sometimes called ‘hodiernal’) which covers the period starting at nightfall yesterday and running through to and including ‘now’.
  • Krongo (Sudan) has the noun m-ùsí ‘sorcerer’, where the initial m- tells us it is singular. The plural is nú-kù-kk-ùs-óoní ‘sorcerers’ with no less than four plural markers, each of which is found independently with other nouns.
  • Russian skovorodá ‘frying pan’ seems remarkable only in that you have to wait for the last syllable to put the stress on the word. But in the plural, the stress moves forward three syllables: skóvorody ‘frying pans’, which makes it sound rather different.
  • English dust. Yes, even English has some star items. The humble verb dust is an example of ‘Gegensinn’, that is, it means its own opposite. We can dust a cake with icing sugar (that is, putting on particles), the opposite of dusting the furniture (removing particles).
    Dusting – even elephants love to do it!

    But there is a danger with this approach: we may well manage a few hundred items, and leave behind an unpublished dictionary. Or we may publish Volumes I-III (A-F), leaving the user stuck for words later in the alphabet: this happens particularly with larger projects, when grand intentions meet organizational and financial reality.

    The alternative approach is to start from the assumption that all words in a language are the same. We soon discover, of course, that this is not quite true. There are dramatic generalizations to be made: we may find, for instance, that many words can occur alone, and some cannot. More generally different classes of words have different properties of combination with others. That is, we specify part of speech information (verb, noun, and so on). Consistent with this, wholly or partly, we may find regularities such as some words distinguishing tense while others do not. And real dictionaries embody such regularities as defaults. If an English dictionary specifies that compute is a verb, it is taken as given that it will have a past tense, that the form will be computed, that this past tense will be compositional (we know that what it means is a combination of the lexical meaning of compute and the grammatical meaning of PAST). And when a default is overridden, the information is given in the dictionary entry. For example, the past tense of go is went (and only the form need be given, since our default assumption about what it means will hold good), or that binoculars is a noun but lacks a singular.

    I have described not one, but two straw men, though I have met real people who came close to these extremes. The point is that the interest of the linguistic gems we started with comes precisely from the way in which they stand out against the backdrop of the general picture. We know that there are general defaults – otherwise speakers and hearers would not cope. We expect singular and plural of a noun to be linked by a simple formula, rather than by a stress-shift that dramatically changes the way the noun sounds, as with Russian skovoroda ‘frying pan’. So in principle we can start from either end (words are all different or words are all the same), so long as we have the other horizon in view too.

    Don’t forget to destress when using a frying pan in Russian… But if you can’t take the heat, time to get out of the kitchen!

    Of course, real people tend to feel more comfortable working from one end or the other; lexicographers are, arguably, more interested in the differences and linguists more in the generalizations. And there are important movements within the field where dictionary-makers point out the need for much more detailed grammatical information about individual words, and conversely where linguists point out that the broad classes we often work with need to be broken down into rather finer detail.

    A saving grace in all this is the possibilities offered by online dictionaries. We can present some of the richness of words in new ways. For example, rather than trying to describe what the pillar that holds up the roof of an underground sheep fold looks like, we can give a picture. The online Archi dictionary does this. And it provides the sound file, so that users can hear what the word sounds like. Indeed they can hear all the basic forms needed to derive its large array of forms (its extensive paradigm). What if the system of sounds comprising the words has taken years of work to unravel? We want to hear the sounds and see the system. This is something – among other good things – that the new Nuer dictionary offers.

    Browsing in the Archi and Nuer dictionaries makes us marvel at how different those words are, one from another, and perhaps from ‘our’ words. And yet they are all the same too – they all use the same Archi and Nuer systems of sounds, and they fall into parts of speech which are interestingly comparable to ‘our’ parts of speech (verbs and nouns are distinct, and so on).

    It would need several lifetimes for anything approaching a ‘complete’ dictionary of Archi or Nuer. But there are plenty of surprises whichever perspective we take: the dictionary entries tell us about the amazing differences between languages, but the innocent little markers (like v. and n.), and the sets of forms given, point to the equally amazing sameness.

    If you enjoyed this post, why not check out our favourite untranslatable words from the languages we work on.

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.