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Wednesday 17 February 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Salish

I came across a language called Salish the other day, and wondered idly if that was what a Sally spoke.

So I looked it up.

Salish, or Salishan, languages are Native American languages spoken near the West Coast of North America where it crosses the US and Canadian border. There are twenty three Salish languages, all critically endangered. Most fluent speakers of these languages are over sixty, and there are some languages where all the speakers are over eighty.

Terrifying, isn't it.

But what's so special about the Salish languages? Are they worth saving?

Oh they are, they are. They're things of wonder. One of the Salish languages, Nuxalk, has a word with thirteen consonants in a row. (You can't write the word down in our alphabet (though some of the Salish languages have systems for doing so) but it means he had had a bunchberry plant.)

And how about this? Some of the Salish languages don't really have nouns. Mind-boggling, isn't it? Instead of an axe, for instance they have an is an axe, which makes everything almost a verb.

In one Salish language, Lillooet, you can't assume you know what someone else knows, so there's no distinction between a and the. A beaver can never become the beaver.

If someone dies among the speakers of some of the coastal languages, his or her name can't be spoken until a relative is given that name. If the name is something useful, like a River, well, you just have to get by with using a description of what it is. 

If no such relative ever comes along then that word dies and the language is changed for ever.

Salish speakers, 1903

Precious wonder upon wonder, and all critically endangered. 

But here, to cheer us up and make us cry at the same time, is a great Salish hero - and certainly a new hero of mine.

Have a look. The world needs heroes.

Word To Use Today: precious. This word comes from the Old French precios, from the Latin pretium, price or value. 

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