Developed over 1,400 years, the English language is astonishingly vast — it contains more than a million words. Moreover, it is not finite — it grows at a rate of about 1,000 words per year. And accordingly, due to its breadth, the English language is incredibly flexible: it offers many alternatives to express an idea with just the right word through synonyms, idioms, and alternate phrases. Despite this, the English language does have some gaps that are only evident when you study other languages from around the world. What is truly fascinating to a lexicographer or linguist is the existence of lexical unicorns — truly unique words that have no single English word translation. Grab your travel bag and let’s go on a trip to a remote part of the world.
For our lexical treasure hunt we must travel to Tierra del Fuego (translated from the Spanish, it means “Land of Fire” named by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan when he saw fires along the shoreline during his approach in 1520) is an archipelago off the southern tip of South America, between the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel. Tierra del Fuego, consisting of over 20 islands, is divided between Chile and Argentina. It was first settled by the Yaghans around 8,000 BC. The Yaghan (or Yagan or Yamana) were initially a nomadic tribe who spoke Yaghan, one of nine indigenous languages spoken by the natives of that region. Over the centuries the native population dwindled dramatically (the population in 2010 was 135,000, of those about 1,700 are Yaghan) and sadly the number of native speakers is down to one, according to the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records that cites Yaghan as the least common language in the world. After the arrival of European settlers in the 16th century, most residents gradually switched to Spanish. Having covered that bit of history, we can now turn our attention to what brings us to this remote corner of the world: a single word that the 1994 The Guinness Book of World Records cited as the most “succinct word,” a single word that cannot be defined briefly in English — mamihlapinatapai, pronounced “ma MEE la pin ah TA pie,” which means “looking at each other hoping that either person will initiate something that both parties want but are unwilling or reticent to do.” For example, mamihlapinatapai describes that moment when two tribal leaders want to negotiate a treaty, but neither one wants to initiate the negotiations; or that moment of attraction between two people, but neither one wants to make the first move. Secondarily, it can also mean “an expressive and meaningful silence shared by two people.” An example of this is when an older couple witnesses something and then glance at one another knowingly, sharing the same unspoken thought. Great word isn’t it?
Now let’s talk about the dictionary that influenced the theory of evolution. British geologist, biologist, and naturalist Charles Darwin first visited Tierra Del Fuego in December 1832 and returned to that area in 1834. He was fascinated by the Fuegians. He initially considered them “Fuegian savages” but slowly his thinking, um… evolved. Darwin noted the similarities between the Fuegian’s and European’s mental capabilities and forms of expressions (emotions and language). In particular, during his visit to the province in the 1850s, Darwin came across a rare dictionary published by a missionary that gave him a deeper understanding of the Fuegan’s rich and nuanced language. These insights into their rich culture would directly influence his ideas about the evolution of humans.
So who wrote that influential dictionary? The writer was Reverend Thomas Bridges, Superintendent of the South America Missionary Society in Tierra del Fuego from 1870 to 1887, who learned the language from the natives and compiled the only dictionary of the Yaghan language titled Yamana – English: A Dictionary of the Speech of Tierra del Fuego. Privately published in 1933, the book contains more than 32,000 words; however, mamihlapinatapai does not appear in that dictionary, but it did appear in a later essay written by Bridges. The dictionary does include some of the morphemes that informed Bridges’ idiomatic translation: ihlapi (awkward), ihlapi-na (to feel awkward), ihlapi-na-ta (to cause to feel awkward), mam-ihlapi-na-ta-pai (to make each other feel awkward). Interestingly, in an article for BBC Travel, writer Anna Bitong interviewed a Yaghan guide in 2018 who noted that prior to Bridges’ translation in the early 1930s, the Yaghan had a different definition of mamihlapinatapai. He explained the importance of campfires in such an isolated, hostile environment: “It is the moment of meditation around the [campfire] when the grandparents transmit their stories to the young people. It’s that instant in which everyone is quiet.”
So the next time you find yourself in such a situation, break the ice by blurting out the phrase and watch the look of surprise turn into a look of amusement when you begin to translate this delightful Yaghan word. You score extra points if you dive into the fascinating history. And take some comfort in knowing that you are keeping an endangered language alive in the 21st century. Incidentally, in 2018, the local government announced the funding of the publication of an illustrated dictionary of the Yaghan language to preserve the province’s linguistic heritage.
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For further reading: Yamana–English: A Dictionary of the Speech of Tierra del Fuego, Thomas Bridges, 1933.