Luke’s Languages 8


Oh, hello there! How nice to see you again. This week will just be a short feature in between the serious lessons. We’re just going to look at what I call “linguistic candy”: checking out some random and cool stuff from various languages. (NB: These are mostly gleaned from classes and textbooks; thanks to the various teachers and editors for them!)


English is the only language that capitalizes the first-person singular “I”. However, many languages conventionally capitalize the formal second-person (like “you”).

In Atsugewi, you choose a word for “move” based on what kind of thing is moving. One word is for small, shiny spherical objects, another for smallish, flat objects, another for slimy, lumpish objects, another for limp objects suspended by one end, another for loose, dry dirt, and another for runny, unpleasant material.


The Eskimo-Aleut language family, although it can make infinite suffixed forms, has about the same number of root words for snow as English. However, the Saami language family, spoken by a people that live north of Norway, has hundreds of words for snow and snow-related stuff. Also for reindeer.


In many languages, including Iranian, Uralic, and Turkic families, when you conjugate verbs you have to express evidentiality, i.e. indicate how you know what you’re claiming. Some options, not all from the same language, can be loosely translated “definitely”, “supposedly”, “perhaps”; “as far as I understand”; “it is rumoured”, “someone directly told me”; “I personally felt it”, “I personally saw it”; and more.


Some dialects of Abkhaz, spoken in Georgia, have no more than two vowels. Another language, Rotokas of Papua New Guinea,  has but six consonants. (There are ways to expand the tiny inventory. One of them is by having pitch, or tone, change the meaning, like in Mandarin Chinese.)


Japanese (among many others) is a “head-final” language. One consequence of this is that prepositions become postpositions; it’s not “of Devonshire” but “Devonshire-of”. The head of such a phrase also reverses position. “Zeruda no Densetsu”, which would be “Zelda, of which (the) Legend”, is the Japanese name of a popular Nintendo game.


A grammatical future tense is rare, when you think about it. Most languages express future tense with a present-tense verb meaning either wanting (e.g. “I will go”) or moving (e.g. “I’m going to go”). We also have “shall”, which once meant “to owe, to be obligated to”. Mandarin Chinese more or less lacks tense altogether; instead, the tense is inferred from another word that gives you the time at which the verb happened, happens, or will happen.


Meanwhile, in Maithili (of Nepal), they have the same word for “yesterday” and “tomorrow”. The tense usually lets you distinguish them, but what about ambiguities like “He was supposed to come yesterday/tomorrow”? We know when the supposing happened, but what about when he was supposed to come? So the standard reply is: “You mean the yesterday/tomorrow in the past, or the yesterday/tomorrow that hasn’t happened yet?” In fact, the word is really more like “the day(s) right beside today”. (Thanks to my Nepal-based aunt for this one.)

Whew! That’s all for now! Too much of this stuff and you feel dizzy. Tune in next week!