Republished Article from MOSAIC

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

Studying an emerging sign language won’t kill it – so what are linguists scared of?

Emerging sign languages could reveal how all language evolved – but keeping these fragile languages isolated for research may mean the people who rely on them lose out.

Connie de Vos was sitting on her hands. It was 2006, her first stay in the Balinese village of Bengkala, and visitors had come every night to her house, sitting on the floor of the front patio, eating fruit- or durian-flavoured candies and drinking tea. About eight to ten people were there now, hands flitting in the shadows, chatting away in Kata Kolok, the local sign language: Where is the next ceremony? When is the next funeral? Who just died?

Kata Kolok was created in Bengkala about 120 years ago and has some special features, such as sticking out your tongue to add ‘no’ or ‘not’ to a verb. And unlike American Sign Language (ASL), in which people move their mouths silently as they sign, you also smack your lips gently, which creates a faint popping sound, to indicate that an action has finished…


Если я убегу от печали (Russian)

Если я убегу от печали,
вверх по горе к синему и к тебе,
ты поцелуешь мое мужество и поможешь нам
прогуляться вниз другую сторону, где
река играет наше странствие песню?

Давайте сделаем день всплеска
переполнен извилистой любовью.
If I run away from sadness,
up the mountain to the blue and to you
you will kiss my courage and help us
stroll down the other side where
the river plays our wandering song?

Let’s make a splash day
overflowing with twisting love.

Ukuba ndibalekela usizi (Xhosa)

Ukuba ndibalekela usizi,
nyukela entabeni ukuya esibhakabhakeni kunye nawe,
ngaba uya kumanga isibindi kwaye
ngaba uza kundinika isibindi sokuhamba
ngaphesheya komlambo esiwaziyo uya kudlala ingoma
yethu yokutshatisa uthando.

If I run away from grief,
go up the mountain to the sky with you,
will you be brave again
will you give me the courage to go
across the river we know will play
our song of flirting
[** translation varies depending on spacing. Sometimes it seems to be “our tendency to love love.*]

Between a Rock and a Hard Placemat

Erudition alas
has not given me a
speaking part in a
play on words, and alas

I’m caught between
a hard-on path
and a romance

between the snoberati
and the hoi polloi

rolling along the road between
the rock and running joke.

Give me my just desert
and dessert commercial path part,
filmed in the desert with cherries
and with camels who
know the way to the oasis.

The Flavors of Sore

Ice cream is usually a good bribe:
you can have all the ice cream you want.
However —

Conditions a sore point
jarring —

if you get your tonsils
taken out for a walk
to a jar, then
unlimited Ice Cream.

Bargains can be surprising.

Anesthesia doesn’t smell like
any flavor of Ice Cream, has
high pitch buzzing, disturbing
lights not like stars, voices
like dreams: there’s
a lot of bleeding…

waking in bed with no Ice Cream,
a bed pan to vomit blood into, and
it has no cherry flavor.

Ice cream is not always a good bribe
with a throat so sore it hurts to eat it.

Some fish dishes will ameliorate, however
if it comes from a jar: carp
whitefish, and pike.

These slippery things don’t come in cherry
or vanilla, or chocolate, but with
onions and bread crumbs, these

Gefilte fish in a jar packed with gel
swim down the throat without pain.

Wonder why it’s not said:
you can have all the gefilte fish you want
if you have your tonsils taken out for a swim.