Encouraging the survival of language


Many English speakers admit to being lazy, both at home and when traveling, in their reliance on English as the pre-eminent international language. I feel that in this multi-cultural age we should embrace the joy, glory and wonder of foreign word

s and expressions. English is unquestionably a great language but I suppose what I am saying is “don’t be surprised there are many others.”

I want, at a time when languages (just like the reduction of animal species and flora and fauna) are becoming extinct at the rate of one a fortnight to encourage their survival and chance to flourish.

My interest in the quirkiness of foreign words was triggered when one day, working as a researcher for the BBC, I picked up a weighty Albanian dictionary to discover that they have no less than 27 words for eyebrow and the same number for different types of moustache ranging from a mustaqe madh, or bushy, to a mustaqe posht, one which droops down at both ends.

Interestingly you would expect some sort of commonality for expressing words for instinctive reactions, like ouch, or even how we articulate animal sounds: for instance frogs in Afrikaans go kwaak-kwaak; in Brazil go korekorekore; in Argentina go berp!

Often a look through a country’s dictionary will tell you more about a culture than a guide book and while reading a foreign dictionary may seem an odd thing to do combing as I have over 2 million words from 280 foreign dictionaries is not the pursuit of a manic anorak but rather the passionate desire to ‘pan for gold’ or anything that raised my eyebrow as every 5-10 pages you find a beautiful, bizarre or uniquely expressive word sometimes unlikely to be known even by their native speakers like

nakhur (Persian) camel that won’t give milk until her nostrils are tickled.

The Shona-speaking people of Zimbabwe have some very specialised verbs for different kinds of walking: chakwair, through a muddy place making a squelching sound; dowor, for a long time on bare feet; svavair, huddled, cold and wet; minair, with swinging hips; pushuk, in a very short dress; shwitair, naked; seser, along with the flesh rippling; and tabvuk, with such thin thighs that you seem to be jumping like a grasshopper.

Post published in: Arts

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