Learn Northern Sami with Steve the vagabond Part 4

There are three kinds of verbs in Northern Sami: vowel
stem verbs, consonant stem verbs and contracted

Vowel stems are the only verbs that use
consonant gradation

Vowel stem verbs always have an even number of
syllables and end on -at, -it, or -ut.

Consonant stem verbs have an odd number of

Contracted verbs end on -át, -et or -ot and have two

juhkat is a vowel stem verb. This is because it has an
even number of syllables: juh-kat

háhkat is a vowel stem verb because it has two
syllables: háh-kat

sohaldahttit means to bend down

sojaldahttit is a vowel stem verb because it has four
syllables: so-jal-dah-ttit

Get complete lessons for Northern Sami at Steve the vagabond on Patreon

What do the words “not” and “wight” have in common?

If you have been watching Game of Thrones, then you would have heard the word “wight”. In literature this word is used to refer to some kind of supernatural entity, whether it is a ghost or even a god. Sometimes it can also be used to refer to some kind of monster. In previous centuries the word “wight” was used to refer to a living creature, but was mostly used for people. Game of Thrones combined these two to to name the monstrous undead controlled by the White Walkers (not the Wight Walkers, yes, a bit confusing).

What does this have to do with “not”? Well, in an even older version of English called Old English, the word “wight” was “wiht” and it refered not just to people, and creatures, but to anything that you didn’t have a specific name for, exactly how we use the word “thing” in Modern English.

“not” comes from a compound word in Old English “nāwiht” which was literally “not anything”. This eventually became Middle English not, noght and naht. From here we got “not”, “nought” and “nawt”.

So a word meaning a thing has gone all the way from being very general, to a word that is obscure enough that you might not have even realised that the creatures in Game of Thrones are called “wights”. At first I thought they were just called “whites” after the “White Walkers”. It’s really funny how some words change so much over time but others, like “not”, hardly change at all

What’s the weirdest way of delivering information that still sounds like language and what can we learn from it?

We live and breathe language. We take it so for granted that we often don’t realise how amazing it is. Even someone who spends most of their time with language, like me, can still be surprised by things that language does.

When I was growing up, language seemed very straight forward, almost boring.

If I wanted an apple, I could just say “I want an apple”. But as I grew up I began to realise how much is actually packed into this.

Each word is refering to a specific idea that is in the collective understanding of the speech community you are in.

“I” refers to the person speaking. But it doesn’t really. It actually refers to the core of the person, the ego (in the psychologist sense). You can say something like “I want it, but my brain is saying no”. This sentence makes sense because we instinctively understand that there is a difference between someone’s consciousness, and their brain which is the biological part of them that runs their body. If “I” and “brain” were synonymous, then using “I” and “brain” in the same sentence would make no sense.

For instance, “The sky is full of clouds but the atmosphere is not”. This sentences makes no sense because “sky” and “atmosphere” refer to the same thing.

The point I want to make here is that language is symbolic. It is not a direct medium of exchange. It merely points to common points of reference and people, for the most part, understand the message you are trying to send.

We, as humans, guess what the speaker is trying to communicate whenever they use words. Sometimes that fails, and misunderstanding and arguments ensue, but in every day life these attempts at communication normally succeed because they are using common points of reference. People talk about the weather, their lives and the comings and goings.

It’s not actually the words that carry the meaning. People carry the meaning in their minds and the words just point to those meanings. These conversations are successful because people are connecting to commonly held meanings.

A turning point in my understanding of language was realising that words are merely symbolic. I was watching Star Trek with a friend and we were watching the German version to improve our German. We had on the subtitles in English just to give us a bit of a boost. Knowing what they were saying helped us understand the German.

I realised it was because the German and the English were both trying to communicate the same thing. The intended message existed in the head of the writer of the episode of Star Trek, and German and English are just two different ways of communicating that message.

At the beginning I started with a question about delivering information. Well, maybe now you see the problem. How do you deliver information if the language is merely a pointer towards an intended meaning and not a holder of meaning itself?

While language is symbolic, we can use that mechanism to point to certain things which we can then define more precisely. “1 metre” points to the concept a metre and includes a count of 1. While “1 metre” is symbolic, it points to a very real thing.

Language can be used to point to general things like “animal” or to something like the mathematical constant of pi.

People throughout the centuries have thought about language and wondered if we could make language specific at a fundamental level.

Many have tried and the results were mostly failures. One language tried to organise the world into categories. The first letter was the major category, like animals, objects, ideas. The second letter was the subgroup like invertebrates, vertebrates.

The problem is that if you give each category a letter, sometimes a word could come out at xdfokjg. On the page this might be useful if you have already memorised the categorisation scheme, but it is not pronouncable. The creators of this language tried to get around this by shifting consonants around but ultimately that defeats the purpose.

There are other languages like Lojban that build logic directly into the language. This means that it is impossible to be ambiguous in Lojban. You know exactly what each part of the sentence is doing.

But people aren’t robots and no one would ever be able to use this efficiently because the human brain is just not set up to think like that.

So let’s look at another attempt at creating a language that tries to get around the ambiguity of natural languages (those that developed naturally over time in the real world).

It is renowned amongst language geeks as being the language with one of the most complex grammars. The language seeks to allow efficient yet precise expression of complex ideas.

Here is a sentence in Ithkuil

Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx

Translated into English this is

On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point

Itkuil packs a lot into a small space. John Quijada, the creator of this language, says the language was not intended to be used in everyday conversation but rather used for fields where precision and clear expression were needed.

Let’s look back at the original question. Well, Ithkuil certainly sounds very weird. You can hear a sample at this link

Does it deliver information? Certainly

But I still come away from Ithkuil feeling a bit funny. If you are a native English speaker, you would have more luck becoming a native speaker of Navajo or Ainu than you are of becoming a native speaker of Ithkuil.

The language simplies goes against the way natural languages work. The more I look into natural languages the more I realise how much they are a reflection of who we all are as humans. We react to the world around us and come up with words to describe our surroundings. We of amble around in our lives without knowing exactly where we are going. Natural languages seem to follow this pattern.

They are messy, ambiguous and full of exceptions.

But they are useful. They allow us to communicate ideas with those around us, and thanks to technology, with the rest of the world. The world has changed beyond recognition since the dawn of language roughly 50 000 years ago, but I can be fairly certain that one of the first languages would also be a communication system extremely similar in function and operation to our modern languages.

People 50 000 years ago talked about birds, animals and fruits. Now we talk about countries, politicians, internet videos, smartphones and blogs. But then as we do now, we are talking about them with language. This remarkable system may be messy and amibiguous sometimes, but it is flexible and able to adapt to the changing world and changing requirements of modern life.

While a world where everyone spoke Ithkuil might be interesting, I wouldn’t give up my native language for the world.

What “yes” and “no” can tell us about how people think

Sometimes the simplest words can actually turn out to not be simple at all. We only see them as simple because we use them every day, but we don’t realise all the complexity that is involved.

There is something humans do quite effortlessly, which is work with commonly held ideas without even realising they are doing it. Language is one such example. People learn words from hearing them around and they then use those words because they know they have meaning to people they meet in the day. There is an idea amongst a lot of people that language is taught only in the classroom.

Language is taught first on your mother’s knee and then in the playground. Language is all around us. We are so immersed in it that we often don’t even think about it, a bit like not really looking at the screen of the PC or cellphone you are reading this on, but rather the words, stories and pictures displayed on it. The screen is a mechanism for transmitting messages, whether they are written, or through pictures.

Now language is much the same. Language is not just the thing you find in Shakespeare or Chaucer. It is the “lol”, “y u no?” and “YAASSS” you see on the internet, the “I had to go to the doctor today”, the “Four score and seven years ago”‍ and everything in between. It reflects the kaleidoscope of human experience. Language is culture, through and through. To try and take culture out of language is like trying to take hydrogen out of water. Taking culture out of language would leave you with nothing but dead words of little significance.

People often don’t say what they mean, and they do this for a variety of reasons. They may want to soften their words to prevent offending someone. They may want to safe face. They might also just want to cheat someone. Sometimes people are just playing the social game.

One example of this is the following
“Hi. How’s it going?”
“Fine. And you?”
“How’s your leg?”
“It’s not doing well. It’s very painful”

Why did the person respond “fine” if they are in pain? The start of a conversation often follows a formula. The technical term for these types of utterances is “phatic communication”. You can read more about them here


The point is that both people know this formula and it performs a few functions that would otherwise take a lot of words

The conversation would otherwise have gone like this

“Oh, it’s you. I want you to know that I see you and that I want to greet you”
“I want to return the greeting in the same way you gave it to me to show that I want to speak with you”

If the formula isn’t followed then confusion or annoyance can result, such as

“What’s up?”
“The sky”

That’s funny, but it violates the common formula. With a friend it would be amusing, but with a stranger, they might get annoyed.

One interesting example of how social expectations fit into language, in English in particular, is the use of “yes” and “no”.

At face value, they look like quite simple words. One expresses an affirmative, the other a negative. But English does something quite interesting with these words.

Here is a simple question

“Is it raining?”

Let’s make it negative

“Isn’t it raining?”
“Yes it is”

Both questions have the same answer, even though if looked at purely logically they should be opposites. The truth is that English does not treat negative questions as actually negative. The negative expresses an attitude, or expectation.

Maybe you were sitting inside all day and just as you head out you ask “Is it raining?”. You ask this to decide if you should get an umbrella or not. It’s winter and the rainy season, but you are not sure if it’s actually raining today, so you ask a simple question.

Let’s say you see someone heading out wearing nothing but a vest and shorts. “Isn’t it raining?” You ask this to communicate the idea that you know that it’s raining and are asking if the other person knows this. You do this because you don’t expect someone to go out in the rain wearing a vest and shorts because it is cold outside.

This is basically short hand of

“I am going out”
“But it is raining outside”
“I don’t care. A little rain is good for me”

So “isn’t it raining?” is a bit like saying “Why would you go outside wearing a vest and shorts when it is raining?”

It can get more complicated though

What if there is a commonly held idea in your area, city or country that chocolate is a delicious snack and that everyone eats it

You could just say, “I don’t like chocolate”. Maybe you would get some raised eyebrows, but otherwise no one intercedes because they are busy or it’s just not important.

Let’s say you do actually like chocolate and your friend says “I don’t like chocolate”

You could respond, “But I do”

People often shorten things, so this would often be shortened to, “What?” or “Huh?” (both with a surprised intonation)

The interesting thing to note here is that the person didn’t respond, “Yes” or “No”, because it would be a bit ambiguous. Are you saying “yes, I agree with you” or “yes, I know you don’t”. People opt for something unambiguous such as a expression of surprise which shows they obviously are of a different opinion.

But what if you actually don’t like chocolate either?

You could reply “I don’t either”. But why don’t we shorten that?

In English people often just shorten this to “no”. Why do they do this? Because they are actually rejecting the commonly held belief in the same way that the original person is. They might then add something on just to spice it up a bit now that the stage is set.

“I don’t like chocolate”
“No, it’s horrible”

This is a short interaction but a lot is going on. The long version is

“Lot’s of people like chocolate, but I actually don’t like it at all”
“If people were to ask me if I like chocolate, I would say no. I hate it. It’s horrible”

What’s funny about this is that other languages might handle this interaction in a completely different way

German uses “Ja” and “Nein” (yes and no) to affirm or deny the statement itself, not the underlying comment on their opposition to or approval of a commonly held idea.

So it can lead to the humourous situation where the English will be “no” but it is translated as “yes” because in context that is the intended meaning.

And that is part of what makes writing about language so fun 🙂