December 04, 2003

cool words

John McWhorter's reminder that we shouldn't go overboard in our admiration for the fact that indigenous languages have highly elaborated and specialized vocabularies for things of interest to them is well taken, but there's no reason that we shouldn't find it fascinating that people know and care so much about things that most of us don't.

Carrier, the native language of a large portion of the central interior of British Columbia, is spoken in an area full of lakes and rivers, in which there are a great many beaver. Not surprisingly, Carrier has a much more extensive vocabulary for beaver than English does. My favorite is k'onih'azi "newly mated beaver couple". Here is some more beaver-related terminology from the Stuart/Trembleur Lake dialect:

tsatsulbeaver of mid-sized variety
tsayazbeaver of small variety
tsatibeaver of large variety
tsachenisboo'beaver kit
tsata'adult male beaver
tsa'atfemale beaver
tsadiyamother beaver
tsachomale beaver that is the boss of a whole area
tsakenbeaver lodge
'utsutrunway from lodge of beaver or muskrat to land
lht'azutnaipair of beaver lodges built close together behind one dam
'udats'unbeaver harpoon
tsambilhbeaver snare
'ulhtustitrail over beaver dam
tsata'tibeaver channel under the ice

The reason that there is a word for "beaver channel under the ice" is that the warm air released by a beaver as he swims causes the ice over the channel to be a little thinner than the ice elsewhere; a hunter or trapper can detect this by tapping the ice and wait or set his traps near the end of the channel.

I bet that many of the people reading this don't know what a "beaver kit" is. That's the English term for the young. But if you don't come from northern North America, and aren't a backwoods person, this probably isn't part of your vocabulary.

Posted by Bill Poser at December 4, 2003 01:17 AM