The Economist’s “Johnson” language blog has an interview with linguist K. David Harrison (see this LH post from last year), in which he has interesting things to say about languages and their preservation; here’s one snippet:

In indigenous cultures we observe the decline of languages and lifeways occurring in parallel. There’s an astonishing book called “Watching Ice and Weather Our Way,” co-authored by Yupik elders and scientists. In it, the Yupik elders describe, define and draw sketches of 99 distinct types of sea ice formations which their language gives specific names to.

Their climate science astounds with its precision, predictive power, and depth of observation. Modern climate scientists have much to learn from it. As the Arctic ice melts, and new technologies like snowmobiles advance, Yupik ice-watching becomes the passion of the elderly few. Their knowledge of ice, their words for it, and the hunting skills and lifeways are all receding in tandem with the Yupik language itself.

Thanks, Kári!


  1. It’s worth noting that there are 99 different words for ‘ice’ in Yupik.

  2. Aha, so the old “x eskimo words for snow” myth is not a myth after all? That is, if you substitute “sea ice” for snow?

  3. Fienup-Riordan & Rearden (2008/9) list 70+ Nelson Island Yup’ik ice terms, while Oozeva & al. (2004) list 100+ for St Lawrence Island Yup’ik.
    (See SIKU: Knowing Our Ice. Documenting Inuit Sea Ice Knowledge and Use, Krupnik & al., 2010).

  4. Hat, I wonder what you think of the comments below that article – the articulate comments, I mean, which express proper skepticism at the arguments for preservationism given by Harrison.
    Even if an indigenous community manages to keep its language while opening itself up to global culture, that language will of necessity assimilate to global culture in any case, leading to a Tofa language that is unrecognizable to past generations and easily translatable into English or Russian.
    Words for ice are useful when you live around ice, but (as another commenter there put it) they lose applicability when you sit at home and check your email.
    What is the argument for preservation, then? I’m definitely a supporter of minority languages, since I’m raising my kids in Yiddish. I think it’s an esthetic argument, Wittgensteinian maybe. No matter how much you translate, there is something untranslatable. Even when your language tends to merge into the rest of the global soup (“5 megapixel camera” turns out to be “5 megapixel camera” in Yiddish too, and I imagine in Matukar as well), there are chunks of language which stay in the stew even when the rest of it has globalized. That’s what makes a minority language a minority language: it hasn’t all assimilated as yet – so it’s tastier.
    But it’s not because something specific is lost from the cast of human thought when a particular species of direction verb goes the way of the dodo. It’s that the preservation of the whole has valuable because that whole – by reason of its very existence – has value.

  5. Hat, I wonder what you think of the comments below that article – the articulate comments, I mean, which express proper skepticism at the arguments for preservationism given by Harrison.
    I find them tedious. I understand the arguments against preservationism (they frequently show up in comment threads here), they’re all the same, and I don’t agree with them.

  6. “that whole – by reason of its very existence – has value”: do you really mean that anything that exists thereby has value? Goodness me.

  7. I can express the notion “four year old male uncastrated domesticated reindeer” in English. But our tongue lacks the economy of information packaging found in Tofa, a nearly extinct tongue I studied in Siberia. Tofa equips reindeer herders with words like “chary” with the above meaning. Furthermore, that word exists within a multidimensional matrix that defines the four salient (for the Tofa people) parameters of reindeer: age, sex, fertility, and rideability.

    I’d be interested to read more about that. From the Economist and elsewhere, it sounds as if Tofa hasn’t got the usual setup where the “words” turn out to be lengthy agglutinative constructs, but actually has a lot of distinct words in the not-many-morphemes sense.

  8. “that whole – by reason of its very existence – has value”: do you really mean that anything that exists thereby has value? Goodness me.
    That whole, not anything at all.

  9. aqilluqqaaq says

    The word which Harrison transcribes as ‘chary’ and translates as ‘four year old male uncastrated domesticated reindeer’, is чары /tʃarɯ/, meaning ‘male domesticated (riding or pack) reindeer’ (or ‘sire’, in эътэр чары), as opposed to иби /ibi/ (or һойлуға), meaning just ‘domesticated reindeer’ – so, male or uncastrated, but nothing about age to my knowledge, but then I’m not really up to scratch with тоъфа дыл. There are, however, also the words for a two-year old reindeer (даспан) and for a wild reindeer (ақ-аң).

  10. Man, it’s great to be able to get a response from someone who is actually familiar with this obscure language. Thanks, aqilluqqaaq!

  11. Yes, aqilluqqaaq!
    Are you able to give phonemic transcriptions of the other words? I can guess regular Russian but here I can’t identify all the letters or what they represent.

  12. aqilluqqaaq says

    m.l.: As I say, South Siberian Turkic languages aren’t really my thing, but it’s my understanding:
    ақ-аң /aq-aŋ/ ‘wild reindeer’
    даспан /daspan/ ‘two-year old reindeer’; cf. дас /das/, тас /tas/ ‘two-year old elk’
    иби /ibi/ ‘domesticated reindeer’
    тоъфа дыл /tòfa dɯl/ ‘Tofa language’
    һойлуға /hojluɣa/ ‘domesticated reindeer’
    чары /tʃarɯ/ ‘male domesticated reindeer’
    эътэр чары /èter tʃarɯ/ ‘reindeer sire’
    The grave accent for –ъ- signifies a low/falling tone.

  13. @aqilluqqaaq: brilliant. Thanks also!

  14. Fascinating! Out of curiosity, what is it about a two-year-old reindeer which merits a special term?

  15. aqilluqqaaq says

    There’s also an English word for a stag in its second year – brocket. It’s the age at which it gets its first, single horns.

  16. marie-lucie says

    aqilluqqaaq, thank you for the transcriptions!
    Are the vowels with low/falling tones short, or somewhat diphthongized (= does the znak mean an extra mora)?
    I suppose there are corresponding words for various types and ages of female reindeer.

  17. aqilluqqaaq says

    m.-l.: The sequence of Tofa vowels subject to what is typically called ‘pharyngealization’ (signifying constriction, and so named after a series of constricted Even vowels), or, sometimes, ‘glottalization’ (signifying creaky voice) Harrison accounts for exclusively in terms of pitch as a minimally contrastive feature: short / low pitch / long (at least in Tuvan, though he cites ‘the closely-related Tofa’). His dissertation (Topics in the Phonology and Morphology of Tuvan) deals with this at some length. Duration of low-pitch vowels, if I remember correctly, varies according to whether it occurs in mono- or poly-syllables and by phrasal context.
    As for related terms for female reindeer – almost certainly, though I’d have to check to be absolutely sure. What I am sure of is that another language (that I know far better), also used by reindeer-herding communities, has terms comprehensively distinguishing deer by sex, age, colour, antler-shape, ear-markings, and place in the herd or team. In that language there’s quite a range of basic terms, but also a fair amount of affixation extending the range too. For example, the word ӈачгытаӈаԓпын /ŋaçɣətaŋaɬpən/ means ‘reindeer with a mark on its left ear which resembles a gun-sight’.
    Петр Омрынто has some fun with this kind of thing.

  18. marie-lucie says

    Thank you for the explanation of the vowels. Isn’t it Tuvan culture that is famous for its “throat singers” (a custom also found among the Inuit)? It seems that it would fit in with the extensive use of pharyngealization in the language.
    What would this other language be, also spoken by reindeer herders? I am interested (from a distance) in the Chukotka languages (Chukchi, Koryak, etc).

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