Does your language influence how you think?

Yes. The answer to the question is yes.

The true question is how and to what degree.

Is it the case, as proponents of linguistic determinism argue, that speakers of a certain language are, because they speak that language, incapable of expressing certain ideas and concepts?

Or is the truth closer to that proposed by the supporters of linguistic relativism, i.e. that one’s language has no impact on one’s ideas?

Drawing examples from languages native to many parts of the world, I shall attempt to demonstrate that the reality of the situation lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes outlined above.

My argument is thus: Language most certainly affects thought, but only to the extent that it determines the grammatical information that is automatically encoded into a sentence.

This only applies to natural languages. Constructed languages are an entirely different matter.

Newspeak from George Orwell’s 1984, for example, is designed in order to make it impossible for the speaker to not only express politically incorrect thoughts, but even to think them in the first place.

Unlike my typical content, this will be less technical, i.e. we won’t dissect the meaning of every word.

Image result for whorf sapir

(The linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, whose Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis argues for a very extreme form of linguistic determinism.)

1. Gender

In this section, we will explore the various ways wherein grammatical gender can encode information.

For example, here is a German sentence and its English translation:

Ich habe den Tisch gebrochen, die Tuer geoeffnet und das Fenster geschlossen.

I have broken the table, opened the door and closed the window.

Now, let us focus on the gender of the three nouns above.

den Tisch (the table) is Masculine, die Tuer (the door) is Feminine, and das Fenster (the window) is Neuter.

(They are all in the Accusative case which, with the exception of der Tisch, is the same as the Nominative case. I mention this because we will discuss the topic of case later.)

The first sentence, as we see, translates into English word for word, though the order is somewhat changed.

In our second sentence, we will replace the nouns with ihnsie and es, which mean himher and it respectively.

Seitdem haben wir ihn repariert, sie gereinigt und es gemalt.

Since then we have fixed him, cleaned her and painted it.

As you can see, the English sentence is grammatically incorrect, since none of these objects have genders.

What if we changed the first two pronouns to it.

Since then we have fixed it, cleaned it and painted it.

This also doesn’t work, since it sounds as though we’re performing all the actions on the same thing.

Another use of gender in German is through the relative pronouns, which can be useful when talking about someone with a gender-neutral name.

Hier steht Kim, den ich liebe. / Hier steht Kim, die ich liebe.

Here stands Kim, whom I love.

In the first sentence, Kim is a man. In the second, she is a woman. In the English sentence, you can avoid explicitly stating whether Kim is a man or a woman, whereas in German, it is unavoidable.

Furthermore, although the English and German sentences are word for word translations of one another, the German ones contain more information than the English one.

Image result for german alps

(A jewel of a lake nestled within the Bavarian Alps.)

On the other hand, the Turkish language has one word, o, which means he, she and it.

For example:

o beni seviyor

She loves me. / He loves me

beni means me, and seviyor is the 3rd Person Singular conjugation of the verb sevmekwhich means to love.

The same is true of the words for the Accusative declension onu, which means him, her and it:

ben onu seviyorum

I love her. / I love him. / I love it.

ben is the 1st Person Singular Pronoun I, while seviyorum is the 1st Person Singular conjugation of sevmek.

In contrast to English, Turkish is a pro-drop language. Thus, the word ben can be omitted with the sentence remaining coherent.

In addition to this, Turkish also has, I have heard, a relatively large proportion of gender-neutral names. Thus, it is possible to describe someone in a lot of detail without making explicit whether they are a man or a woman.

Indeed, depending on context, you could tell a great saga about a person’s great deeds in such a way that the listener is unsure as to the biological sex of the person in the story.

Recently, a friend gave me a primer on the Lushootseed language spoken in the US Pacific Northwest, which has this to say: „if the speaker does not choose to name specifically the person spoken about, there really is no need to use any words such as he or she.“ (Italics in original).

You may not agree with this statement, but I hope it provides food for thought.

Image result for ayasofya camii

(The Ayasofya Cami, Hagia Sophia Mosque, in Istanbul, Turkey, whose languages we will likely discuss at some point in the future.)

2. Tense 

Consider this English sentence for a moment:

He did not go

Based entirely on this information, answer this question: At what point in the past did this event take place?

Based on no further context, it is not possible to answer this question in any conclusive manner.

The same is not true for the Diyari language of South Australia, where five translations of the English sentence are possible. Below each sentence, I have included a secondary translation to provide more detail:

I: nhawu wata waparna warayi

i: He did not go (today)

II: nhawu wata waparna wirriyi

ii: He did not go (yesterday)

III: nhawu wata waparna parraya

iii: He did not go a week ago

IV: nhawu wata waparna wapaya

iv: He did not go a few months ago

V: nhawu wata waparna wanthiyi

v: He did not go a very long time ago

For clarification, the underlined words are not temporal locators, e.g. words such as long ago or yesterday.

Instead, they are auxiliary verbs, i.e. the equivalent to the word did in the English Sentence, or the word have/has that is also used in the English Past Tense.

Naturally, none of the above underlined words translate to either did or have/has, especially as the latter certainly does not exist in Diyari.

Image result for south australia

(South Australia, the region where the Diyari language is located, has a thriving wine industry.)

The principle difference amongst the above sentences is their distance in the past, as implied by the secondary English translations.

The Tenses are:

I: The Immediate Past, pertaining to events that occurred within the time elapsed since the most recent sunrise;

II: The Yesterday Past, for actions undergone in the week leading up to the days‘ sunset;

III: The Recent Past, for goings-on that took place one or two weeks prior;

IV: The Intermediate Past, which took place „a good while ago“;

V: The Distant Past, for all events that took place further back than that.

However, if you do not wish to specify the rough time period that has elapsed since the event took place, it is possible to use the Simple Past:

nhawu wata wapaya 

At this point, you may be wondering whether the Diyari have, through their language, a greater understanding of the past.

There is no doubt an academic study into the matter would reveal interesting results.

Sadly, the Diyari language became extinct in the late 20th century. With the last beat of heart, a unique worldview was lost, and many mysteries shall remain forever unravelled.

Do not be desponded, however, because there are many other languages out there that divide the past into several areas, e.g. the Kala Lagaw Ya language of the Torres Strait Islands that pepper the waters between the tip of the Queensland Peninsula and Papua New Guinea, and the Yemba Language of Cameroon, which also divided the future into different grammatical sections.

Image result for south australia aboriginal art

(A piece of work by Aboriginal artist Andrew Highfield Tjupurrula, who was born in South Australia, the region where Diyari comes from.)

3. Person & Number

In Section 1, we touched upon the notion of languages that possess no distinction between the pronouns he and she.

In this section, we shall discuss the Unua language of Malekula, Vanuatu, a Pacific Island Nation, another language that lacks the she/he distinction, expressing both via the 3rd Person Singular pronoun xini.

However, there are three English pronouns, weyou and they, for which there are four, three and two Unua equivalents respectively. For the purposes of brevity we will focus on the versions of we.

Below are two English sentences, followed by their four mutual possible translations. Again, I have included secondary translations to provide further clarification.

We looked for him on the shore, but he was not there. / We looked for her on the shore, but she was not there.

I: rrarru rrukroxni xini aut go xini ujxe 

i: You and I looked for her on the shore, but she was not there.

II: memru morkroxni xini aut go xini ujxe 

ii: The two of us looked for him on the shore, but he was not there.

III: rrate rrakroxni xini aut go xini ujxe

iii: With your help, we looked for her on the shore, but she was not there.

IV: memde mamkroxni xini go xini ujxe 

iv: Without your help, we looked for him on the shore, but he was not there.

Here, we can see the two separate dichotomies along which the English 1st Person Plural is further differentiated in Unua.

Image result for malekula vanuatu

(Malekula Island, Vanuatu. Don’t get lost in the jungle. Those coconuts are known to get quite vicious when they sense the presence of trespassers on their territory.)

Our first distinction is between the Dual and the Plural. Our second is between the Inclusive and the Exclusive.

In sentences and II, the Dual Pronouns rrarru and memru refer to specifically to two people.

In sentences III and IV, the Plural Pronouns rrate and memde more closely resemble the English we, as they refer to three or more people.

Rrarru and memru, are the Inclusive pronouns. Rrate and memde, meanwhile, are the Exclusive pronouns.

As you can imply from the secondary translations, the difference here is that the former include the listener, whereas the latter do not.

From my own, albeit admittedly limited research, it seems that both the Dual/Plural Inclusive/Exclusive difference are more common than the he/she 3rd Person Plural distinction.

This is not a conclusive remark, and there are languages, like the aforementioned Diyari, which include all three of the dichotomies explored thus far.


(Malekula Island, Vanuatu, the home of not only Unua, but potentially up to 39 additional languages. Of these 40 tongues, only 20 have been studied in any great detail, leaving plenty left to uncover.)

4. Aspect

For our last segment, we will discuss an area where English is more detailed than the comparison language, in this case German.

In Linguistics, Aspect imparts certain information concerning the nature of the action.

Our example here is between the Progressive Aspect, which indicates an event that is yet to reach completion, and the Habitual Aspect, which shows an action that occurs with a specified or unspecified frequency.

In German, this distinction does not exist, wheres in English, it can be expressed implicitly. For example:

Ich gehe zum Strand.

I am going to the beach. (Right now or later.)

I go to the beach. (For example to answer the question: What is the first thing you do every holiday?)

Although the latter English sentence is a word-for-word translation of the German one (zum is the combination of zu and dem), both English sentences are, assuming a lack of context, equally valid translations.

In order to alter the German sentence to more closely reflect that of the first English sentence, we can add the word gerade, which translates approximately as now. To wit:

Ich gehe gerade zum Strand

I go now to the beach. / I am going to the beach.

Though as we can see here, it is not a perfect replacement, especially as gerade possesses a number of other meanings in English, an exploration whereof lies beyond the scope of this blog post.

5. Conclusion

As ever, I hope that I have provided you with an interesting insight into the many different ways that one can express ideas linguistically. It, of course, goes without saying that this is merely a scratch upon the surface of the tip of the iceberg, as are all my blog posts. I have no doubt that you could point out to me countless other, fascinating examples.

To all those who have made New Years‘ Resolutions, I wish you every success that I can, and to those who did not, may every success befall you and your loved ones also.

In the next article, which will be the first composed entirely in 2019, I shall do something bold. A three-way language comparison between Mandarin Chinese, Irish Gaelic and Panamint Shoshone, the latter two I have discussed in previous articles.

The reason why I have chosen these three languages in particular is that they all share one particular feature: the Question Particle.

Only time will reveal whether this was too ambitious an undertaking.

Until then,

Same Wilf-time!

Same Wilf-channel!


Thom Hess and Vi Hilbert, Lushootseed: The languages of the Skagit, Nisqually and other tribes of Puget Sound (Lushootseed Press 1995 (Reprint))

Peter K. Austin, A Grammar of Diyari, South Australia (Cambridge University Press: 1981)

Google Images

Elizabeth Pearce, A Grammar of Unua, 2015





Tundra Nenets: A deep dive into a moody language

Several weeks ago, we travelled to the frigid steppes of the Siberian tundra to study a language. Having since left in order to better prepare ourselves for the hostile weather we can expect to encounter, we shall return for a deeper exploration.

In a previous entry I introduced you to Tundra Nenets, a Uralic language whose distant cousins include Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian, and I briefly began to explore some of its moods, though due to the restricting nature of my previous weekly schedule, we were only able to barely scratch the surface.

Well, now we are back, and this time we plan to journey farther across the bone-white snow and under the sapphire-blue skies, slowing only to give our faithful huskies a well-earned reprieve.

Also, in case you are wondering whether any of these moods have confusingly similar descriptions, the answer is a firm yes, though I shall try to differentiate between these moods as far as I can.

There is also an extra Mood hiding somewhere in the paragraphs that follow, if you keep your eyes peeled.

1. The Imperative

To start with, we shall explore a mood with which you should all be familiar, even if you are completely unfamiliar with its full linguistic name.

The imperative is used when giving instructions.

Examples in English include:

Don’t push me! (because I’m close to the edge. I’m trying not, to lose my head)

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1a. The Positive Imperative

In English, the positive Imperative is formed by simply saying the infinitive, whereas the negative Imperative is preceded by the auxiliary negative verb don’t (or do not if you wish to add extra emphasis). This is all you need to do.

In Tundra Nenets, on the other hand. It’s not quite that simple, at least when it comes to transitive verbs (those where someone/thing is affecting someone/thing else).

Here are some tables to look at. The verbs being conjugated are yexara, which can mean either to not know or to ignore and te, which means to flow.

A key is provided to help you parse the alphabet soup.




Now that you’ve had time to drink in the wonder that is these tables, you are no doubt curious as to what they are actually showing.

As in most, if not all, languages, the Imperative is only ever directed at the Second Person, which in English carries the single form you.

In Tundra Nenets, meanwhile, there is a different form of the Imperative depending on whether you are bossing around one, two, or more people. Though this makes the language relatively more complicated to learn, it allows the listener a greater opportunity to not listen to the order, since they how many other people were also required to listen, and who can therefore pass it on.

Here are translations for some of the verbs in the table above.

Singular Object:

tim is the Singular Accusative form of the word for reindeer.

tim yexarado! =  you, ignore the reindeer!

tim yexaraər’ih! = you two, ignore the reindeer!

tim yexararaq! = all of you, ignore the reindeer!

Dual Object:

texohis the Dual Accusative form of the word for reindeer.

texoh yexaraxəyumoq! = you, ignore the two reindeer!

texoh yexaraxəyud’ih! = you two, ignore the two reindeer!

texoh yexaraxəyudaq! = all of you, ignore the two reindeer!

Plural Object:

tiq is the Plural Accusative form of the word for reindeer, though, admittedly, this is more of an educated guessI can confirm that it is indeed the Plural form. However, it is not specifically referenced to in the grammar as Accusative, I have inferred this from its use in various sample texts.

tiq yexaranoq! = you, ignore all the reindeer!

tiq yexaraəyod’ih! = you two, ignore all the reindeer!

tiq yexaraəyodaq! = all of you, ignore all the reindeer!


(One deer, two deer, red deer, blue deer.)

1b. The Negative Imperative

In English, the Negative Imperative is formed using the auxiliary verb do not, commonly shortened to don’t, followed by the infinitive. In the context of this discussion, this construction is called the Negative Imperative Particle.

This is not too different to Tundra Nenets, as we explore in the example below:

pidəro n’ono yed’eqləq!

Don’t get ill!

pidəris the 2nd Person Singular Pronoun, i.e. you. As in most Tundra Nenets sentences, the inclusion of the pronoun is optional.

n’ono  is the 2nd Person Singular Negative Imperative Particle. This may seem like a word salad, but it’s not too difficult a concept around which to wrap one’s head.

Essentially, n’ono  is the form of don’t, but it only applies when giving orders to a single person.

yed’eqləq is comprised of three parts. The first, yed’eq, is the verb stem meaning to get ill. This word looks as though it has a similar origin to yed’a, which is the noun for pain. (Though this similarity could possibly be a mere coincidence.)

This is followed by -lə, which is the Inchoative Suffix.

In Linguistics, the Inchoative typically denotes change and transformation. In this sentence, we can translate it as to become, though it would be redundant to do so.

Our last component, -q, is the Connegation Suffix, whose role in Tundra Nenets we explored in a previous entry, where we compare it to its counterpart in French.

To summarise here, the Connegation occurs when the creation of a negative sentence requires marking both before and after the verb.

I was unable to find the Negative Imperative particles for the 2nd Persons Dual and Plural, but based on patterns, I would guess that they are *n’onor’ih and *n’onoraq respectively, though these are likely incorrect.

2. The Probabilitative

Now that the Imperative is out of the way, we can finally move on to the real reason why you are all here, and that is to discuss the moods that don’t exist in English.

As its name suggests, this mood is used to express probability. It is used to indicate that the speaker is making an educated guess, based on circumstantial evidence, about events which they either do not or cannot be certain are true.

The Probabilitative suffix can take a number of different forms, depending on tense, number, person, etc. For the purposes of brevity we shall only discuss a few of them.

Here is an example sentence:

wərk xaxoo yadertakio, wen’ako p’ih yampənoh mərasaoda

There must be a bear walking nearby, the dog barked all night

wərk simply means bear.

xaxoois composed of two parts. The first is xaxo, which means to be close. The second part, the suffix o , is the modal converb.

The third word, yadertakio, has two components also. The first yadermeans to walk. The second part, -takio is the Probabilitive Suffix.

wen’akois the word for dog.

p’ih yampənohmeans all night, or during the night. Though the literal translation is closer to the night’s during.

yampənohmeans during, while p’ih is the Genitive (Possessive) form of p’i, which is the word for night.

mərasaoda is the 3rd Person Singular conjugation of the verb mərasao, which means to bark.

Image result for putin wrestling bear

(No doubt the dogs were barking in a very patriotic manner, their tails wagging out of love for Mother Russia.)

We will now examine another sentence, this one in the future tense:

n’īs’awaq n’erom wal’ibt’eəs’o, temtaŋkodakeda

Our father mentioned the purple willow, he will probably buy it.

n’īs’awaq means our father, and is formed via the combination of n’īs’s, which means father, and -waq, which is the 3rd Person Plural Suffix.

n’erom is the Accusative form of n’ero, which means purple willow.

wal’ibt’eəs’is the past tense form of wal’ibt’eə, which means to mention.

temtaŋkodakeda means (he) will probably buy temta is the verb stem, meaning to buy. ŋko is the Future Tense suffix.

-dakeda is the Probabilitative Suffix, but is used whenever a 3rd Person Singular Subject is acting on a Singular Object. In the grammar, it is denoted using the acronym PROB.3SG>SG.OBJ.

Image result for purple willow russia

(N’ero, Purple willow, Salix purpurea. It is often used to brew herbal teas.)

The Probabilitative Mood is similar in meaning to the Inferential Mood, though there are a number of differences between the two. One of these differences seems to be that the Probabilitative Mood is able to refer to events in the past, present and future, whereas the Inferential Mood only refers to events that happened in the past, which we shall explore in more detail now.

3. The Inferential

As inferred, the Inferential Mood is used by the speaker to indicate that the event was not or cannot be witnessed directly, or that there is no evidence to confirm the assertion.

One use of this mood is to express the Future-in-the-Past, with which you should be familiar, though you may not have heard it called that. It refers to an event which occurred (or more often did not) in the past, but in the future relative to a point further in the past.

For example:

N’eko knigam tolaŋkuwio

Nyeko was going to read the book.

N’eko, or Nyeko, is a girl’s name, and she is the subject of our sentence.

knigam is the Accusative form of kniga, which means book, or the book. (For any Slavophiles and Slavophones in the audience, kniga is a Russian loanword, whose Accusative form is knigu.)

tolaŋkuwiis derived of three components.

tola is the infinitive stem to read. -ŋku is the Future Tense suffix. -wiis the Inferential suffix.

Because of the presence of the Inferential Suffix, we know that Nyeko did not read her book, but that there is evidence implying that she would have.

However, the English sentence still fails to capture the full meaning of the Tundra Nenets equivalent. In order to achieve this, we would need to add a qualifying sub-clause.

For example: It seems that Nyeko was going to read the book or As far as I can see, Nyeko was going to read the book. This is because in Tundra Nenets, the fact that the incident did not take place means that it cannot be spoken about with any degree of certainty.

When used with the First Person Singular, the Inferential can be used to denote an event that was or is outside the speaker’s control.

For example:

ŋul’iq pomokuh xon’owedom

Apparently I have slept for a long time.

ŋul’iq pomokuh means a long time or, more literally, completely long.

xon’owedois another term composed of three separate parts. xon’o is the verb stem for to sleep. -we is the Inferential suffix. It is based on the presence of this suffix that we get the term apparently. In context, we can assume that the speaker woke up much later than they had expected or planned, for example, when they fell asleep it was midday but now the sun is setting.

-dom is the First Person Suffix.

Image result for siberian taiga

(The Siberian Taiga in Summer.)

4. The Necessitative

In stark contrast to the previous two moods discussed, the Necessitative indicates that, based on knowledge known to the speaker, the events described are predetermined by the circumstances.

Depending on context, it can be translated as either must or should.

Here is an example of the former:

mən’o Moskwanoh mənotəno yaderkərc’udom

I will have to go to Moscow personally

mən’is the First Person Singular Pronoun, i.e. I. The inclusion of this word seems to emphasise that the sentence applies to the speaker specifically. In general, Tundra Nenets is a very pro-drop language when it applies to pronouns, and their exclusion is quite common.

Moskwanois the Dative form of Moskwa, which means Moscow. The Dative case is used to indicate the indirect object of a transitive verb. Here, however, it is used to indicate direction; a not uncommon occurrence cross-linguistically.

An alternative spelling is Moskva, which makes several appearances in Professor Nikolaeva’s grammar. This is a transliteration of the Russian word Москва from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. (Speaking of which, Tundra Nenets can also be written using a customised version of the Cyrillic alphabet. If you wish to find out more, follow the Omniglot link in the source-list).

I assume that this pronounciation  is more likely to pass the lips of those who have more familiarity with the Russian language, since the phoneme /v/ does not exist in the Tundra Nenets language.

mənotənis derived of two parts. The first is məno, which means personally. The second -no, is the First Person Singular Suffix.

yaderkərc’udom is a word composed of four segments, two of which are mood suffixes.

yader is the verb stem to walk.

-kər is the Precative Mood Suffix, which is used to indicate that the event described has been requested by the speaker.

-c’u is the Necessitative Mood Suffix, which takes the form of either -pc’u or -bc’u when it is preceded by a vowel.

Lastly, we have -dom, which is the First Person Singular Suffix seen earlier.

Image result for moscow

(St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. I have no doubt that this monument to Tsarist Grandiose Pomposity is even more impressive when seen in person.)

In other circumstances, the Necessitative can also be used to indicate permission. For example:

pidor’ih tobc’ur’ih

The two of you should come

pidor’ih is the 2nd Person Dual Personal pronoun.

tobc’ur’ih is composed of three elements. The first, to, is the verb stem for to come.

The second, -bc’u, is the Necessitative Suffix.

The last, -r’ih, is the 2nd Person Dual Suffix.

Conversely, the sentence could also be used to indicate obligation, though not necessarily a strong one.

5. Conclusion

We have reached the end of the article, though before you rejoice, bear in mind that there are still 10 more moods we have still to discuss, if not more. Maybe we will discover these during 2019, though that remains to be seen.

In our next installment, which will be the first of the new year, we shall meditate and muse upon the topic of linguistic determinism

Also planned for the last year of the second decade of the third millennium are, among other things, a sojourn through the sweltering Southern Amazon, a passage across the pristine Pacific, and, naturally, another adventure in Australia, (though not necessarily in that order).

Until then, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Sources: (Also includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a video of a Nenets song)

Google Images

Nikolaeva, Irina (2014). A Grammar of Tundra Nenets. Mouton Grammar Library

Google Translate: English to Russian

7 Dyirbal words that do not exist in English

In our previous article, we discussed a number of English words that do not exist in other languages. One of the languages featured was Dyirbal, and if you wish to know what that word was, you will need to refer back to that article, (though it may well make a sneaky appearance here, who is to say).

I had two main reasons for focusing on Dyirbal. The first is that I hold a particular fascination with this language. It was the first Australian language with which I became familiar, and the one that led me to discover the continent’s many linguistic wonders.

The second was to demonstrate just how different a language’s vocabulary can be.

In addition, it helped that there were many more than 7 Dyirbal words that fit this category, many of whom make an appearance littered throughout this article.

Key terms:

Absolutive Case: covers Intransitive Subjects and Objects

Ergative Case: covers Transitive Subjects (Agents)

Nominative Case: covers both Transitive (Agents) and Intransitive Subjects

Gender I: Men and most animals

Gender II: Women, Water, Fire and Dangerous Things

Gender III: Edible Plants

Gender IV: Miscellaneous / Everything Else

1 & 2: mañdyay & rrubiy

I chose to include these two for the simple reason that, in English, we have a single verb, namely to eat, that covers both of these Dyirbal ones.

However, unlike in English, these words clarify the nature of the food being eaten. The first mañdyayrefers to the act of eating vegetables, while the latter, rrubiy, refers to the act of eating meat.

These are both intransitive verbs, meaning that they do not take objects.

For example:

balan mañdyanyu = she eats vegetables

bayi rrubinyu = he eats meat

In addition, there is also the verb yulmiy, which means to eat in the more typical sense. This is a transitive verb, meaning that, in contrast to the previous verbs, these must take objects.

For example:

balam buriru banggun yulminyu = She eats the potato

balan dyudulu banggul yulminyu = He eats the Brown Cuckoo-Dove

balam buriru means the potato, with buriru meaning potato, and is a loan word, though I cannot tease from which language. balam, meanwhile, is the Absolutive Marker for Gender III.

banggun is the Ergative Marker for Gender II.

banggul, meanwhile, is the Ergative Marker for Gender I.

balan dyudulu means the Brown Cuckoo-Dove. This is a particularly interesting word because it takes Gender II, as oppose to Gender I, which one would expect.

Brown Cuckoo-Dove- Lake Eacham - Queensland S4E8018 (22327667126).jpg

(The Brown Cuckoo-Dove, Macropygia phasianella. Typically, they only fly for short distances and also quite low to the ground.)

3. Mugu

Mugu means that it was impossible to avoid performing an action or completing a task in an unsatisfactory manner. This can mean that you did something even though you did not want to, you did it by accident, or you didn’t have the time or resources to complete something to the level of professionalism to which you typically hold yourself accountable.

For example:

ngadya mugu mañdyanyu = I had to some vegetables, even though I did not want to

ngadya is the First Person Nominative, and always translates to the English I.

bala dira banggul mugu bagaran = he broke the tooth by accident

dira means tooth, with bala being the Absolutive Gender IV. (Depending on context, dira can also mean name, which also takes Gender IV.)

The infinitive bagaral means to break, though it does not specify the means by which one breaks the item.

ngadya balan bima mugu balgan = I killed the death adder by hitting it with a long rigid implement, but not before it had already managed to bite someone

balan bima means the death adder, and in this case I was unable to figure out which specific species it could be. Although snakes are animals, it seems as though they tend to fall under Gender II as oppose to Gender I.

The infinitive balgal has two meanings. One is to kill, and the other is to hit with a long rigid implement, held in the hand, and for artistic purposes I chose to merge these two meanings together. I do not know whether this is something that a native speaker would do, but I do not consider that possibility to be too far out of the realm of plausibility.

Furthermore, according to one of Dixon’s informants: „putting mugu in makes it ‚that’s alright'“. Thus, it can be implied that mugu does not make any moral or other value judgement on the subject/agent of the sentence.

In the last sentence, this can mean that the speaker had been distracted by a number of other things, or had been given insufficient warning of the adder’s presence before it struck.

Typically, mugu will immediately precede the verb, though it can occur anywhere before the verb, but can never appear after it.

CSIRO ScienceImage 3990 Death Adder.jpg

(The Common Death Adder, Aconthophis antarcticus. Based on its current geographical extent, it is possible that this is the animal referred to as balan bima. It also makes sense in our story, because she can deliver the fastest strikes among all snakes recorded in Australia.)

4. Nguri

Nguri is used to say that an action was done in order to redress a balance of some variety. Reasons can include revenge; to indicate that A is giving to or doing something for B in exchange for something that, earlier, B gave to or did for A; or because it is now someone else’s turn to do that thing.

One example is the (bonus) word ngurigabun, which means something along the lines of revenge for something that was, itself, an act of revenge.

The suffix -gabun means another. 

For example:

ngali dyidugu yanuli bagul ñadyulmali ngurigabun = let’s go and fetch some dyidu wood, in order to get revenge by burning him with it

In this story, which comes from a Dyirbal myth, an old man has turned into a rainbow snake in order to punish his daughters for killing their brothers, his sons. In order to wreak vengeance, his grandchildren wish to burn him alive.

ngali is a variant of the First Person Dual pronoun, which refers to the speaker and one of the following relations: grandparent, sibling, cross-cousin (the child of your parent’s opposite-sex sibling), and parent- or child-in-law.

dyidugu is composed of two parts: dyidu, which refers to the wood of the dyidu tree, while -gu is the Allative Suffix. The Allative Suffix is used to indicate the direction in which one is going. Thus it means something along the lines of to the dyidu wood.

dyidu belongs to Gender II, since it refers not only the tree, but also the torches made from its wood, thus qualifying as fire. (Sadly, I had too little information with which to

yanuli is the Purposive Form of the verb yanul, which means to go.

Thus ngali dyidugu yanuli as a whole means something akin to let us go to the dyidu wood, since no action is currently being carried out.

bagul is the Gender I Dative pronoun, and refers to the grandfather. This can be translated into the English word him in most, if not all, circumstances. Typically, this would be in the Absolutive case, but is made Dative by the presence of the Instrumental Verb Suffix.

ñadyulmali is built from three components. The first, ñadyul, can mean either to burnto cook or to light. 

The second is the Verbal Instrumental Case Suffix -mal. 

The Instrumental case is used to indicate either the means through which or the object with which one carries out an action. In Dyirbal, this can be expressed as a suffix attached to the end of the noun, or through the Verbal Suffix indicated above.

The last component is the Purposive Suffix -i.

Nguri can occur anywhere in the sentence, though the language informants disagreed as to where its default position was.

Leaves and fruit. Copyright CSIRO

(Balan Dyidu, Halfordia scleroxyla, though it has several English names, among them Kerosene Wood, a reference to how it burns well, even when green, and the anglicised Jitta.)

5. Biya

Biya is used to indicate that the event could have happened, even though it in fact did not.

For example:

Biya ngaña banggun gudanggu guydyun

The dog could have bitten me, but she did not (for example, because it’s owner was able to calm her down in time)

ngaña is the Singular First Person Pronoun, which can always be translated into English as me. (Note: this word varies across dialects, and this is the Girramay form.)

banggun gudanggu is the Ergative declension of balan guda, which means the dog. Like most of the animals discussed here, it falls under Gender II.

(Sidenote: In the neighbouring Mbabaram language spoken to the north of Dyirbal, the word for dog is dog, but this has nothing to do with English. In fact, both words are believed to derive from the word gudaga.)

guydyun is the Non-Future Tense conjugation of guydyul, which means to bite.

A dialectal variaton of biya is biri, for example:

ñuba balan dyigirdyigir biri yulminyu

The two of you could have eaten the Willy Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) (but you were too late)

ñuba is the Second Person Dual Nominative Pronoun. It is the equivalent to the English you except it applies exclusively to exactly two people.

balan dyigirdyigir means willy wagtail bird.

Despite Dyirbal’s typically very free word order, biya and biri are restricted in the sense that they can come anywhere before the verb, but never after it.

Willy wag tail.jpg

(The Willy Wagtail, Rhipidura leucophrys. In many Aboriginal folk traditions, it is considered as either a bringer of bad news or an eater of secrets, though I do not know.)

6 & 7. Budil & Dimbay

Both of these words translate into the English infinitive to carry, but there is an important distinction between them. The former, budil, means to carry something in one’s hand/s whereas the latter, dimbay, means the opposite; for example, to carry something on one’s back or to carry something on a stretcher, to name but a few.

An example of budil:

bayi galbin banggun Dyarganggu budin

Dyarga carries the man’s son in her hand

In Dyirbal mythology, Dyarga, or balan Dyarga is one of the two sisters  who discovered and breast-fed Ngagangunu, the baby son named both by and after his father, who had left the child unsupervised in order to hunt kangaroos, with whose blood he nourishes the infant.

In addition to this, based on the use of the noun phrase bayi galbin, it is either impossible or highly unlikely that the son she is carrying is her own. This is because the word galbin means a man’s child. To make the sex of the child known, we add add bayi or balan, with the latter referring to a daughter.

Had we wanted to make the child hers, we would have used the word daman, which means a woman’s child.

Furthermore, at this point in the myth, the two (and by extension all women) had yet to acquire their reproductive organs, and this it could not have been her son anyway.

budin, meanwhile, is the Non-Future Tense conjugation of budil, meaning to carry in one’s hand. I assume that this verb also applies if the lower arm is also used.

An example of dimbay:

balam gaygamali balan dyubulgan dimbañ

The woman will carry flour on her back in order to entice her promised man.

Now this sentence is a truly marvellous one, even if I, its creator, do say so myself.

balam gaygamali means the flour, and is our second example of the Absolutive Gender III marker.

However, the word gaygamali is a truly wonderful construction, especially when you consider that Australia is home to few to zero native agricultural traditions. (Note: the following explanation is derived from my own personal inferences, and is at most an educated guess.)

First, we start with gaygi, a loan word meaning cake, whose origins should not prove too difficult to deduce. This is changed to gayga, the purpose of which I cannot explain.

Second, we add the Instrumental Modifier –mal.

Third, we add the Purposive Suffix -i. 

Together, we get gaygamali, which, then taken apart, means something along the lines of that with which to make cake.

Following this, we are presented with balan dyubungan, which means a woman who entices her promised man. To understand why this particular concept requires a single word, we must first explore an aspect of Dyirbal culture alien to Westerners.

Typically, marriages in Dyirbal are arranged by the parents when the children are very young. After the arrangement, both spouses are raised separately from each other, and taught how to fulfil their expected roles in Dyirbal society.

When the boy becomes a man, usually by making his first major kill, he is then allowed to claim his bride.

Not unexpectedly, not all young bridegrooms need restraint lest they run too fast and die of exhaustion before they reach their betrothed. Thus, it is occasionally necessary for a woman to take the initiative and remind her promised man that he is expected to claim her. However, she cannot force him to marry, and if he chooses to continue to ignore her, as well as wider societal pressures, though he is expected to take the hint, then she may then have to return home empty-handed.

Of course, the reasons why our young Romeo may neglect to pursue his pre-chosen Juliet are numerous. Among these include general forgetfulness, homosexuality or heterosexual lack of interest.

However, one could be that he does not consider her strong enough to raise his children. Thus, in order to prove her strength, she has chosen to carry an inferred heavy load of flour on her back.

Image result for manjula nahasapeemapetilon

(One example of a dyubungan in popular culture comes from The Simpsons. In the season 9 episode The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons, we watch as Apu makes several attempts to wiggle out of his arranged marriage to Manjula. Eventually, he ends up going though with the marriage, albeit reluctantly. However, when he actually sees her, he is blown away, and eventually they fall in love.)

In conclusion, I hope that this was an interesting foray into a number of words with no comparable English translations. There are, of course, many more untranslatable terms in not only Dyirbal but many other languages around the world, and we will come to many of these as we explore the world of languages.

In our next issue we shall return to the snow- and lichen-blanketed Russian tundra, and revisit our old friend Tundra Nenets. With this longer, albeit fortnightly as oppose to weekly, format, which I very much prefer, we will have more time to cover a greater number of moods.

Until then,

Same Wilf-time!

Same Wilf-channel!


Dixon, Robert M W, The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland, 1972

Dixon, Robert M W, Edible gender, mother-in-law style and other grammatical wonders: Studies in Dyirbal, Yidiñ and Warrgamay , 2015

Google Images

3 English Words that don’t exist in other languages

You’ve likely seen in many places on the internet lists with the following or similar title: 5 Foreign Words that don’t exist in English or 5 Words from other languages that English needs and others. However, it is rare to see a list that does the reverse, i.e. shows words that exist in English but not in other languages, and how they get around it.

1. Ankle

Here we take a look at two languages that use very similar constructions in place of the word ankle.

Anêm and Lusi are languages spoken on New Britain, an island similar in size to Taiwan that lies off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea. These languages are spoken in close proximity, but are not part of the same genetic family.

Anêm is a language isolate, meaning that it has no known relatives, while Lusi is a member of the Austronesian language family, making it a distant cousin to languages such as Bahasa Indonesia/Malaysia, Satawalese (which we talk about in previous blog entries) and Maori.

Anêm: agim-ki tiga / foot-his neck / ankle

Lusi: ahe-gu ai-gauli / foot-my his-neck / my ankle

Thus, in both of these languages (and no doubt a number of others around the world) the ankle is referred to as the foot’s neck or the neck of the foot.


(The location of the island of New Britain)

2: Cousin

In this section we will talk about Hawai’ian, which has an interesting, albeit simpler, way of talking about family.

In the Hawai’ian kinship system, there is no distinction made between lineal and collateral kin. In layman’s terms, this means that the words for aunt and uncle are the same as those for mother and father respectively.

As a result, the words for cousin are the same as those for brother or sister. 

Here is how your family tree would look if English used the Hawai’ian system. (For reference, it uses the Inuit system.)

Hawai'ian kinship

(This is a screenshot taken from NativLang’s video: Family Trees in Other Languages: our world’s 7 kinship systems, a link to which is in the list of Sources at the end of the post.)

However, while Hawai’ian may lack words for cousin, it does not lack words for brother or sister. To the contrary, it has three, though it is not quite as simple as it may seem.

To explain this, we shall consider how my own siblings and I relate to each other.

For those unaware, I am the eldest of four, followed first by my sister, who in turn precedes our two mutual brothers.

Here’s a diagram to (maybe) help you keep track:

Muh hawai'ian kinship

Now, as the eldest, I have one kaikuahine and two kaikaina.

My sister, who is only 15 months younger than me, has three kaikunāne.

Brother 1, with whom I am separated by 4 years, has one kaikua’ana, one kaikuahine and one kaikaina.

Brother 2, who was born 6 years after me, has two  kaikua’ana and one kaikuahine. 

Here’s the simple word list version of the above description:

kaikuahine = a man’s sister

kaikunāne = a woman’s brother

kaikua’ana = older same-sex sibling (i.e. a man’s older brother or a woman’s older sister)

kaikaina = younger same-sex sibling (i.e. a man’s younger brother or a woman’s younger sister)

If you wish to discover more about the 6 kinship systems (yes, despite there being thousands of languages, only 6 kinship systems have been found), it is highly recommended to watch the attached video. Just as the Inuit and Hawai’ian system like to lump people under the same terms, other systems prefer to get more specific in ways I will leave you to discover for yourselves.

3. (To) want (to do)

It has been a while since the last time I spoke about this language, but once again we will discuss Dyirbal, an Australian language spoken by approximately 6 people in the Queensland Peninsula.

To express the desire to do something, we use the Purposive suffix, which is typically employed to show that one action is being done in order to carry out another.

To see this principle in action, let us consider this sentence:

Bayi yuri dyinggalinyu biliygu

The Eastern Grey Kangaroo (Micropus giganteus) runs away in order to climb a tree.

The first three words are quite simple:

Bayi is simply the definite article for Gender I, used with Male Humans and Most Animals. Yuri, meanwhile, is the word for Micropus giganteus.

(Note, similar to how Eskimo languages are famous for supposedly possessing 50 concepts for snow, each with its own word, many Australian languages lack a single word for kangaroo, instead opting to give each species its own unique name. The Dyirbal language known no fewer than 9 species of kangaroos and wallabies, each of them named separately.)

dyinggalinyu, meanwhile, is the Non-Future Tense inflection of dyingaliy, meaning to run. Thus, this sentence could apply to either the present or the past, though here I have chosen present.

The last word, biliygu, is composed of two components. The first, biliy means to climb a tree, and is an intransitive verb. This means that it does not take an object. In the Dyirbal language, climbing a tree is treated as a single action in and of itself.

The second component is the Purposive Suffix -gu, which is used to indicate that it is the purpose of the previous verb.

Baby kangaroo in pouch.jpg

(The Eastern Grey Kangaroo Macropus giganteus)

For transitive verbs, whose infinitive forms typically end in -l, the Purposive Suffix is -i.

Here is an example:

Balan gabul banggul yarrangu duban durmali

The man mashes the scrub python (Morelia amethistina) with a stone in order to cook it.

Balan gabul is the word for Morelia amethistina. Unlike most animals, it belongs to Gender II, which covers Women, Water, Fire and Dangerous Things.

banggul yarrangu means the man, and despite how it may appear at first glance, it does belong to Gender I. Here it is in the Ergative case, which is used to indicate a transitive subject.

duban is the Non-Future Tense version of dubal, meaning to mash with a stone.

durmal means to cook, with -i being the Purposive Suffix.

High-Yellow Sorong Amethystine Scrub Python.jpg

(The Amethistine Python, otherwise known as the scrub pythin, Morelia Amethistina)

Now, while you no were no doubt fascinated by my discussion of the Purposive Suffix, we came here to discuss how the Dyirbal language expresses the idea of wanting without an equivalent to the English word want. 

To achieve this, we remove the non-Purposive verb from the sentence. For example:

Bayi yuri dyinggalinyu biliygu = The Macropus giganteus is running in order to climb the tree


Bayi yuri biliygu = The Macropus giganteus wants to climb the tree


Balan gabul banggul yarrangu duban durmali = The man mashes the Morelia Amethistina with a stone in order to cook it


Balan gabul banggul yarrangu durmali = The man wants to cook the Morelia Amethisina

Therefore, in order to express desire, we take a regular Purposive sentence and remove the active verb. Since the participant is not striving towards achieving that goal, it can be inferred that this is a purpose to which they would like to strive, or that they are yet to begin striving.

However, this is not the only use of the Purposive suffix, but for the time being we shall end here our discussion thereof. Perhaps if you’re good boys and girls I’ll come back to this topic in the future.

In the next post, which will be in a fortnight, I shall treat you to a number of Dyirbal words that don’t exist in English.

Until then,

Same Wilf-time!

Same Wilf-channel!


Areal Diffusion and Genetic Inheritance: Problems in Comparative Linguistics ed. by Robert M W Dixon and Alexandra Aikhenvald (2002)

The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland by Robert M W Dixon (1972)


Tümpisa: The Language of Death Valley

At long last, we have made it to the United States of America, the land of the free.

In this post, we shall analyse Tümpisa, the language spoken by the indigenous inhabitants of Death Valley, California.

This language belongs to the Uto-Actecan language family, which, as implied by the name, covers a wide geographical area extending from the US state of Utah to Central Mexico, where we find Nahuatl, a direct descendant of the Aztec language spoken by Hueyi Tlahtoani (Great Speaker) Motecuhzoma, or Montezuma to use the traditional Anglo spelling. This language, which means common, still enjoys over a million speakers.

Nahuatl is also the origin of a number of English words, including, among others, tomatochocolate and avocado. 

As of 2007, there were approximately 20 speakers of the Tümpisa language in the states of California and Nevada, though this has likely fallen due to the advanced age typical to this demographic.

In fact, while this language has several names, e.g. Panamint, Timbisha and Koso, I shall refer to it exclusively as Tümpisa because this is the native name for Death Valley. It is a combination of the words tün and pisa, which is short for pisappin, which means red paint or red ochre, and is a reference to the many deposits of said substance in the valley.

Image result for death valley

(I wonder where the pioneers are now.)

Sentence 1

Nüü ma kwüüntühantü.

I have to marry her.

Nüü means I. It can also be spelled .

Ma is the Objective form of either him or her.

(We will discuss the difference between the Objective and Accusative cases later.)

The verb kwüüntühantü, means have to marry, and is composed of several parts. The first, kwüün means to get married or to be married.

In addition, it can also mean to catch or to own/possess. 

The second part, tühantü, is the Obligative suffix, which is used to indicate either obligation or inevitability. This suffix is also a combination of suffixes.

The first, -tün, is the Imperfective suffix. This is used to indicate that the action is incomplete

The second, -han, is the Stative suffix. This indicates that the verb refers to a state of being, e.g. being married. This is the opposite of a Dynamic verb, which is used for describing action, which in this case would be the act of getting married.

The third, -tün, is the Present Tense Participle, whose purpose you can deduce for yourself.

On a side note, kwüün is not the only word meaning to marry in Tümpisa: there are two others. One of them pünnahapitu, refers exclusively to a male subject, while the other, kuhmatu, refers to a female subject. Thus, we could translate both these words to mean take a wife and take a husband respectively.


Sentence 2

Hüttsawünnümpü kahnin tüpiinga kattü. 

The refrigerator is in the middle of the house.

Our first word hüttsawünnümpü, means refrigerator, and is composed of two parts. The first is the verb hüttsawün, which means simply to be cool or cool down. This is an intransitive verb, which means that it refers to the act of cooling oneself down, as oppose to another object. For this meaning, the verb becomes hüttsawüngkun,

The second is the suffix -nnümpü, which by itself doesn’t mean anything. Instead, when attached to the end of a verb, it turns it into an instrumental noun, i.e. the thing that carries out the verb.

kahnin, meanwhile, is the possessive form of kahni, which means house. Thus, the word as whole can be translated as house’s. 

Our next word, tüpiinga, serves two functions. It is both a noun and a postposition, meaning centrein the middle of or (in)between, depending on context.

A postposition, for those unaware, is a preposition except it comes after, as oppose to before, the word it is modifying. One function of a preposition is to describe the spatial relationship between two objects; examples from English include from, underneathabove and next to, among others.

Thus kahnin tüpiinga translates to (in) the middle of the house, though it could as easily be (in) the house’s middle. 

Last, but not least, we have kattü, which means to sit. Much like in many languages, though the verb to be does exist, its speakers prefer to use other verbs in order to express location.


Sentences 3

Piiya nü yaakki! / Piiya nü yaakkiongku! / Piiya nü yaakkiommü!

Bring me a beer!

As is often the case when comparing sentences between two vastly different languages (or possibly even between two otherwise similar languages), the direct translation of one sentence leads to two or more equally valid alternatives in the target language. This is the case here.

The difference between the three Tümpisa instructions lies in how many people they are instructing, but we will return to this later.

Piiya is the Objective form of piiyawhich means beer.

is the Objective form of the First Person Singular, i.e. me.

Here, you may have noticed that both beer and me, are in the same grammatical case, i.e. the Objective. A result of this is that the difference between the Direct and Indirect objects, which are typically represented by the Accusative and Dative cases respectively. The Objective case is also referred to as the Oblique case.

One way to square this circle is through word order (which is quite flexible). In Tümpisa, the direct object usually precedes the indirect object at a rate of around 70% of the time.

Thus, if you re-translated the Tümpisa sentence back into English, you would be grammatically correct in choosing the somewhat clunky-sounding Bring me to a beer! or Take me to a beer!

yaakki is the Imperative (command) form of yaakkin, which means to bring, but only when referring to either one or two objects. If you wished to refer to three or more objects, the verb to call upon is himakkin.

-ongku is the Dual Suffix, and –ommü is the Plural Suffix. The former is used when two people are being commanded, and the latter is used when three or more people are being commanded. These are obligatory in order to express this information, and without a suffix, only a single person may be commanded (excluding further context).


Diese Diashow benötigt JavaScript.

In conclusion, this was a mere introduction into the many indigenous languages of North America, a continent for which there are plans to return in the future.

In the next post, however, will be our second installment of English Words that don’t exist in other languages, because I feel like a break from the technical density that is a running theme throughout my work.

I’ve also considered changing the release schedule from weekly to fortnightly. Were this to happen I’d likely increase the average length of a post to around 3,000 words, up from the current 1,000. We’ll see whether this occurs or not, because I would like to be able to dig deeper without feeling pressed for time.

Either way, until next week:

Same Wilf-time!

Same Wilf-channel!


Google Images

Jon P. Dayley. 1989a. Tümpisa (Panamint) Shoshone Grammar. University of California Publications in Linguistics Volume 115. Berkeley: University of California Press

P. Dayley. 1989b. Tümpisa (Panamint) Shoshone Dictionary. University of California Publications in Linguistics Volume 116. Berkeley: University of California Press

The moods of Tundra Nenets

In Linguistics, a mood helps to express the speakers attitude towards what they are saying, and serves to encode extra information within a specific speech utterance.

In English, there are three moods. These are:

1: the Indicative, used for normal sentences, e.g. the man flexes, or the woman dabs.

2: the Imperative, used for commands, e.g, Sit!, Lie down! Roll over!

3: the Subjunctive (sometimes called the Conjunctive) is used to discuss imaginary or hypothetical events. This is largely a fossil in English, though some remnants remain, e.g. God save the Queen.

Another example would be the sentence: I have suggested that she leave now.

However, this sounds strange to the modern English ear, and one would be more likely to say: I have suggested that she leaves now.

Tundra Nenets, on the other hand, has around 16 separate moods, including the indicative. Suffice to say that we will not explore them all here, only those I found most interesting (in no particular order).

Image result for tundra nenets

(The Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, wherein this moody language is spoken, a mere stones throw away from the hydrogen bomb testing site that is Novaya Zemlya.)

1. The Apprehensive (Future)

Our first mood is used to express fears and concerns about either the future. It also has another use, which we shall discuss later.

In this mood, sentences are typically negative. Therefore, this will involve material covered in the previous entry, and which I shall not retread.

N’orowadom yanolaraq.

I hope I’m not (too) late.

N’orowa is the Apprehensive Negative, while –dois the First Person Singular suffix. In this instance, we have to translate it as I hope not in order to convey the concern carried by the sentence.

yanolara simply means late, while the suffix -q is the connegative.

As you can see, there is no equivalent to the verb hope in the Tundra Nenets sentence. Though this does exist, it is unnecessary as its meaning is conveyed through the Apprehensive Negative.

The same is true for the word for I. In contrast to English, Tundra Nenets is what is known as a Null Subject language, which means that you do not always need the pronoun to exist independently in a sentence.

The word too is optional, as it works in both sentences.


(This is a comparison of the sentence with the regular indicative equivalent. In red is the word-for-word translation, the the extent that it is possible.)

Image result for siberian tundra

(The Siberian Highlands, Eastern Sayan.)

2. The Assertive

Our next mood is, in many ways, the polar opposite to the previous one. Here, we talk about statements that are assumed to be true.

Here is our sentence:

T’irt’a ŋəno tūtoəwa

The plane will certainly arrive

Our first word t’ir’ta is the combination of t’ir, which means to fly,  and the Imperfect Participle suffix –t’a.

ŋəno, our second word, means boat, though it also functions as the word for plane.

Our last word, tūtoəwa, is composed of three components.

The first tū, simply means to come, or in this case to arrive.

The second, toə is the Future Suffix, which is used, somewhat self-evidently, when the event described takes place in the future.

Our third, -wa, is the Assertive Clitic, though after a consonant it takes the form -ma.

Now, at this point, you’re probably wondering what a Clitic is.

As far as I’m aware, a clitic is a unit of language, while it displays all the properties of a word, it can’t quite function by itself, and needs to be in the presence of other words.

English examples include contractions such as we’re,  you’ve and haven’t, among others.


Image result for tundra nenets

(A group of Tundra Nenets Reindeer herders, keeping alive a many millennia-old tradition).

3. The Apprehensive (Past)

Here we discuss the second purpose of the Apprehensive, which is to express regrets concerning the past.

tim temtarəwawəwa

If only I had bought the reindeer

Our first word, tim is a combination of ti, meaning reindeer, and -m, which is the Accusative suffix.

The Acccusative Suffix is used to indicate the direct object of a sentence, in this case the thing that I did not buy.

The second word is composed of four sections, one of which was introduced earlier.

The first temta, means to buy. 

The second, –rəwa, is the Apprehensive suffix.

The third -wə, takes the acronym 1SG>SG.OBJ. This means that a 1st Person Singular Agent is acting on a Singular Object.

For example, if we replaced this with the 3SG>PL.OBJ Suffix -rəb’ida, then the sentence would now mean if only s/he had bought the reindeers.

You would also need to change the word for reindeer from tim to tīda.

This leads us (briefly) to the issue of redundancy. In many languages, the same information is often encoded several times in different ways within the same sentence. An advantage to this system is that it can allow the listener to miss part of what is said and still be able to infer the meaning from how the missing part caused all the other words to change.

The fourth, and final, -wa, is a clitic whose acquaintance we were recently pleased to make, i.e. the Assertive.

Without the Assertive, this meaning of the sentence becomes impossible. Because there would be no confirmation that the event had really taken place, then, assuming no context is given, the speaker would needs must assume that the speaker is referring to an event that has yet to take place.

Thus the sentence tim temtarəwawə would mean something akin to, I hope (that) I buy that reindeer, e.g. before I forget or before someone else does.


(A map giving a greater sense of the Tundra Nenets‘ location within Russia.)


In addition to these, Tundra Nenets has no fewer than 15 other moods, for example the Necessitative (that something should happen) or the Potential, used when the event described is considered naught more than a possibility by the speaker. It is likely that I will explore these, and maybe others, in the future.

Next week, we shall analyse (what I consider) an interesting feature of Tümpisa Shoshone, which, if you remember nothing else, is the indigenous language of the hottest recorded place on Earth: Death Valley, California (at least during the winter).

Until then,

Same Wilf-time!

Same Wilf-channel!


Google Images

Nikolaeva, Irina (2014). A Grammar of Tundra Nenets. Mouton Grammar Library

The French-Siberian Connection

In this post, we shall discuss two languages that share a single feature, the Connegative. Though before we do this, we must first introduce our two loci of attention.

The first, French, requires no introduction.

The second, Tundra Nenets, on the other hand, does.

According to official Russian data, the language possessed around 20-21,000 speakers in 2010, when the most recent census was carried out. It is a member of the Samoyedic branch of the Uralic language family. In short, this means that the language is a (very) distant cousin to the Northern European languages of Finnish and Estonian, and the Central European language of Hungarian.


(The language branch of East Sami cropped by the picture is Peninsular Sami, which is home to Kidin Sami and Ter Sami, with around 500 and 10 speakers respectively. Also, for those unaware, the languages in red boxes are extinct.)

1.  What is the Connegative?

To explain this linguistic concept, we shall turn to one of Belgian artist  René Magritte’s most famous pieces art, known in English as The Treachery of Images.

Image result for c'est n'est pas un pipe

So that we are all on the same page, the text on the painting simply means This is not a pipe.

Now, the part of the French sentence that is of most interest to us is the n’est pas in the middle.

est is the third person singular form of the verb être, which means to be. As a result, est can be translated directly as is. 

However, on either side of est we have our two negative particles, which are ne and pas respectively.

Because ne is followed by a word beginning with a vowel, the two are combined to become n’est. 

Sadly, I was unable to find a translation for pipe, so Magritte must, for now, remain untranslated.

Related image

(A little treat for the eyes: Here we see Russian President Vladimir Putin showing us his skills with his rod in the mountains of Southern Siberia.)

2. Simple Sentence Comparison

In order to gain a greater grasp of the connegative, we shall now consider these two sentences, both of which mean: I am not a hunter. 

Xan’ena n’īdom ŋaq

Je ne suis pas un chausseur

The first sentence is quite simple to break down.

Xan’ena means hunter. Unlike either English or French, Tundra Nenets does not possess any articles, i.e. no words such as the or a. 

Also, xan’ena is an ungendered word, i.e. it can translate as either hunter or huntress.

n’īdois a combination of two parts. The first, n’ī, is the negative marker, and dois the first person singular marker. It should be noted that it is possible to attach this affix to the end of xan’ena instead.

ŋaq, meanwhile is the connegative form of the verb ŋǣ, which means to be. In Tundra Nenets, the connegative is formed by simple adding the suffix -q to the correct verb, which in some cases results in a vowel change, as that seen here.

You may have noticed that the Tundra Nenets sentence also does not have the word for I, which is mənʹ°. As far as I can gather, in sentences that merely ascribe an attribute to someone, the first person pronoun is omitted. It tends to only be used when a more active verb is present.

Now we move on to the French sentence:

Je means I. Unlike in Tundra Nenets, though like in English, it is necessary to include this as the start of the sentence.

suis is the first person singular form of être, which translates into am.

un chausseur means a hunter, and note the gender of the noun, which is masculine. If a woman wished to refer to herself as a huntress, she would need to use the feminine une chausseurresse.

This brings us to ne and pas, which fall on either side of suis to make the sentence negative.

Image result for nenets

(The Taiberi family of the Nenets tribe, whose ages range from 3 to 65.)

Our next two sentences mean: We (two) will not find each other

N’īn’ih wun’in’ih xoŋkuq

Nous (deux) ne nous trouverons pas

Let us first take the Tundra Nenets sentence.

Our first word, n’īn’ih which is the 1st Person Dual Accusative Reciprocal. What does this mean? Allow me to explain.

The 1st Person Dual is the form of we that refers to specifically two people. To refer to three or more people, the plural form is used. This distinction does not exist in English or French on a grammatical level.

The Accusative Case is used to indicate a direct object, i.e. the noun that is being acted upon. Here, it is used to indicate that we is the object that will not be found.

The Reciprocal is a linguistic structure used to imply a relationship between two nouns. In English, this relationship is expressed solely through the set phrase each other, or more specifically in this context, the two of us… each other. 

Our second word wun’in’ih, is composed of two parts.

The first is wun’iwhich is the Emphatic Negative. Functionally, this is the same as the regular negative. It is used here because the Negative and the Accusative Reciprocal are both n’ī, and thus we need to differentiate them.

The second part, –n’ih is the 1st Person Dual, which we discussed earlier.

If you wished to change the sentence so that it referred to the 1st Person Plural instead, the changes are highlighted in bold:

N’īnaq wun’inaq xoŋkuq (Please note this is just an educated guess)

Last, but not least, we reach the word xoŋkuq, which means will not find.

It is composed of three parts. The first xo, which is a shortened version of xoə, which means to find.

ŋku is the Future Tense suffic.

-q is our old friend the Connegative, whom we met earlier.

Image result for northern siberia

(Siberia, as well as most of North and Central Asia, were once home to Mammoths, and is where most of their fossil remains are found.)

Now we move on to the French sentence:

Nous (deux) ne nous retrouverons pas

In this sentence, the word nous appears twice. In the first instance, it means we, and in the second instance, it means us.

In French, the 1st Person Plural is the same whether it is the subject or direct object of a sentence. (Though in this sentence you could argue

In brackets, we have the word deux, which means two. This is to illustrate that, while the number of participants is encoded in the Tundra Nenets grammar, the French sentence requires a clarificatio word.

trouverons is the 1st Person Plural Future Tense conjugation of trouver which means to find.

Unlike in Tundra Nenets, verbs in French (and to a much lesser extent English) change depending on whom is performing them. For example, if the same sentence was in the third person, the sentence would look thus:

Ils ne se retrouveront pas = They will not find each other

Lastly, we once again run into our negative ne, and its companion the connegative pas.

Related image

(The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, gazed from the Taymyr Peninsula, once again in the Siberian Far North.)

Here is a summarised version of the above sentence comparisons:

In conclusion, I hope that this was a stimulating comparison between these two very distant and very different languages. When taking on this challenge, I did not realise the degree to which I needed to research French, which proved very considerable.

In our next outing, we shall remain on the frozen tundra of Northern Siberia, though we shall dispense with the self-proclaimed la langue civilatrice, and focus solely on the Tundra Nenets by itself, in particular some of its many moods (this is a very moody language).

Make sure to wrap up warm, and don’t stare too long at the light of the sun as it bounces off the boundless pristine snow, and until then:

Same Wilf-time!

Same Wilf-channel!


Google Images

Nikolaeva, Irina (2014). A Grammar of Tundra Nenets. Mouton Grammar Library,_te,_se,_nous,_and_vous