December 10, 2007


Category: Language,Miscellaneous :: Permalink

In his introduction to Fragile Things (p. xxv-xxvi), which, by the way, contains only a few stories I enjoyed, Neil Gaiman writes:

And on the subject of naming animals, can I just say how happy I was to discover that the word yeti, literally translated, apparently means “that thing over there.”  (“Quick, brave Himalayan Guide — what’s that thing over there?”


“I see.”)

It makes me happy, too, although I see that this etymology, which is presented here is not accepted here.  It reminds me of the story, perhaps apocryphal, about the missionary who was trying to learn a particular African language.  He pointed at something and said, “What do you call that?” and the African responded with a word.  The missionary pointed at something else.  “And what do you call that?” he asked.  The African responded with the same word.  No matter what the missionary pointed at, the response was always the same.  Eventually, the missionary discovered that the word meant “finger”: no matter where he pointed it, it was still called “finger.”

What seemed obvious to the missionary, namely that you point with your finger and name the object you’re pointing at, wasn’t at all obvious to the African.  In his tribe, you point with your chin and indicate the distance of the object with your pitch, deep and low for something up close but high and squeaky for something far away.

It strikes me that we take a lot of things like this for granted.  Augustine thought that children learn language by having people point at something and name it over and over again (“Chair … chair….”).  That seems to be how it works for some nouns, but what about pronouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs?  And what about this pointing gesture anyway?  How come our kids know that when we point at the chair and say a particular word over and over again, we’re naming the chair and not our finger or the gesture or something else altogether?

Language-learning, as Wittgenstein pointed out in his response to Augustine (if I recall what Fergus Kerr says about it) is much more complex and much more mysterious than Augustine thought.  Perhaps he should have observed some children more closely.  My daughter, for instance, has grasped participles sooner than verbs.  She doesn’t say, “Papa, hold me.”  She says, “Papa, holding me.”  Odd, but true.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:33 pm | Discuss (1)

One Response to “Yeti”

  1. Paul Baxter Says:

    Language acquisition is one of the things I’ve been studying over the last 3 years, though I still ind it mysterious, as you say. One of the interesting bits of research, though, is that using actions is one of the most intuitive ways to acquire language and has very high retention. Thus you could teach a student to “walk to the table” (involving 4 parts of speech right there) and then easily modify it to things like “walk slowly/quickly to the table” and “walk to the table after I lift the pencil.” All of that plus a lot more could be taught in the very first hour of a foreign language class. Try to remember how much you learned in the first hour of any language class you took.

    To give credit where due, this research was carried out by cognitive psychologist James Asher and if you for some reason wanted to read about it you can find a copy of his book , Learning Another Language Through Actions. His method is referred to as TPR (for Total Physical Response).

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