Letters to the Editor SpecGram Vol CXLIX, No 4 Contents Are Turkish and Amharic Related? Are They Ever!--April May June
Speculative Grammarian is proud to present yet another irregular installment in the Linguistic Anthropologic Monograph Endowment's Bizarre Grammars of the World Series.

Up the Mind's Nose; With the Mind's Finger

An Anthropological Linguistic Study of the Pιčkιt0

Bizarre Grammars of the World, Vol. 56

The Pιčkιt live in small villages high in an Asian mountain range (contractual obligations with

"Linguists are no different from any other people who spend more than nineteen hours a day pondering the complexities of grammar and its relationship to practically everything else in order to prove that language is so inordinately complicated that it is impossible in principle for people to talk."
--Ronald W. Langacker

the copyright holders of the Pιčkιt language prohibit me from being any more specific at this time). These mountain villages are heavily forested--so much so that it is difficult to see more than ten yards on even the clearest day.

Not that clear days come to the Pιčkιt very often. Thanks to an odd confluence of frigid Arctic air masses from the west, and a steady warm ocean breeze from the south and east, a typical Pιčkιt village is enveloped in dense fog from before sun-up to late afternoon, between 320 and 350 days a year. Vision is limited, to say the least.

Worse yet, the fog is regularly accompanied (330 to 340 days a year) by a constant heavy drizzling rain. The broad leaves of the native plants and trees seem almost to ring with the sound of raindrops cascading off them. As a result, even the simplest verbal conversations require yelling until one is hoarse.

To an outsider this is, for all practical purposes, Hell on Earth. For the Pιčkιt, though, it is home. They seem to bear the stifling fog and rain stoically if not enthusiastically. And, when one of my consultants accompanied me to a distant town to restock my supplies, he was gripped by an attack of agoraphobia, and spent most of the trip under a blanket in the back of my truck.

Anthropological Insights
Two remarkable adaptations allow the Pιčkιt to successfully inhabit their mountain home.

The first adaptation is a wide-spread form of non-verbal communication. I hesitate to call it a sign language, for fear of implying it to

"...real, live creatures are spinning the web of language all the time, making it as they use it, without the slightest regard to the formulas of professors or the precepts of pedants."
--Gamaliel Bradford

be a visual/manual communication system. The language is actually primarily manual, for both the sender and the recipient of the message. Nonetheless, for convenience sake, I will refer to this mode of communication as PSL (Pιčkιt Sign Language).

Outdoors, a typical sign language, such as American Sign Language, would be vastly superior to spoken language, which is well nigh impossible in the thundering rain. Still, ASL or something similar would be adversely affected by the thick fog, which often limits vision to a matter of inches. The clever resolution in PSL to the conundrum is to communicate not hand-to-eye, but hand-to-hand.

PSL signs are almost completely restricted to a combination of hand-shapes, finger positions, and wrist orientations. All of which are easily detected by the recipient, who holds their conversational partner's hands in theirs while communicating. The only comparable system I am aware of is that employed by blind users of ASL, who may similarly keep their hands on each other's hands while signing.

The second

"Language is a form of human reason, which has its internal logic of which man knows nothing."
--Claude Lévi-Strauss

crucial adaptation that allows the Pιčkιt to live in their forbidding land is a truly keen sense of smell. Without much in the way of sights or sounds to guide them, smell plays a key role in the Pιčkιt's daily lives. Animals, both prey and predators, are readily detected and identified at a distance; medicinal as well as food plants are found in large part by smell. Even other members of the tribe can be identified by smell--accuracy varies: more familiar members of the community are more readily identified, while less familiar members cannot be identified personally, but are usually easy to assign to a family group.

Linguistic Background
Viberg (1984)
sight > hearing > touch > smell/taste
Viberg's simplified sense modality hierarchy
proposes a universal relative ordering in the primacy of the senses, and as a corollary, limits on intrafield extensions of verbs of perception. Building on this, Sweetser (1990) suggests that vision, as the primary sense modality, is the only source of transfield extensions from verbs of perception to verbs of cognition.

Evans and Wilkins (2000) have shown that Sweetser's claims are invalid, offering as a counterexample many instances of Australian Aboriginal languages where transfield extensions from verbs of hearing to verbs of cognition are common. A probable explanation for this situation is that conversational styles and cultural norms have reduced the arguably natural primacy of vision in conversation, and increased the importance of hearing as a sensory modality.


"Language is to the mind more than light is to the eye."
--William Gibson

Viberg's claims remain unsullied, and the original modality hierarchy is not disturbed by Evans and Wilkins's findings.

In the data below more damage is inflicted upon Sweetser's claim, as transfield extensions from verbs of smell and touch to verbs of cognition are common in Pιčkιt. However, no data contradicts Viberg's sense hierarchy. A perhaps novel explanation for this situation is offered below.

Linguistic Data
A few simple glosses suffice to demonstrate the relevant phenomena:

  • pιčk-ιt
    The people who smell (properly) or
    The people who are known

  • hid   əz-ən   pιčkιt
    neg 2sg.emphatic smell-people
    You are not Pιčkιt!

  • pιčk   jrn   oz
    smell dog 1sg
    I smell the dog. or
    I perceive the dog. or
    I know the dog well.

  • pιčk   myn   oz
    smell tale 1sg
    I know the story. or
    I remember the story.

  • pιčk   hrn   oz
    smell food 1sg
    I smell dinner. or
    I know how to prepare that food. or
    I recognize that food's smell.

  • pιčk   hɛzn   oz
    smell memory 1sg
    I remember that (memory). or
    I experience that memory with a sad longing born of desperation, solitude, and the unrequited love of an isosceles tricycle for a slightly browned but still sweet-smelling banana peel.

  • tu   š-é
    touch 3sg-nonhuman.emphatic-iterative
    Fondle it! or
    Study it! or
    Remember it!

  • tu   nah-f   iš
    touch rabbit.hostile 3sg-masc
    He hits (touches in anger) the rabbit. or
    He hates the rabbit.

  • tu   näp-ïan   o
    touch cow.affectionate 3sg-fem
    She strokes the cow. or
    She milks the cow. or
    She loves the cow.

  • tu   brk-úlòs   iš
    touch book.sacred 3sg-masc
    He touched the book reverently. or
    He memorized the book. or
    He fantasized about the book. or
    He created the book through the mystical force of his ideation.

  • tu   ba'n'čɛl   o
    touch color 3sg-fem
    She likes color. or
    She dreams of color. or
    She rationalizes the existence of color. or
    She hypothesizes color despite having lived her whole life without having seen color, as one who has grown up in a black-and-white room.

Linguistic Analysis

"When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the 'human essence,' the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man."
--Noam Chomsky

verbs of both smell and touch exhibit transfield extensions to verbs of cognition. However, there is no evidence to suggest that there are any intrafield extensions of verbs in Pιčkιt which violate the sense modality hierarchy proposed by Viberg.

The conclusion is fairly clear from where I sit, among the Pιčkιt, despite the rain and fog. The sense modality hierarchy is inviolable, because it reflects basic materialistic facts about our brains and our senses. Clearly we are designed as primarily visual beings, with hearing being a strong but distant second. The other senses straggle in, behind sight and hearing.

Cognition senses of verbs are expected to derive from perceptual senses of verbs, and by default, the culturally primary verbs are the sensorially primary verbs--i.e., those of vision. However, strong cultural trends (as with the Australian Aborigines) or hard physical limits imposed by the environment (as with the Pιčkιt) can override this basic semantic pathway by forcing another sensory mode into cultural primacy.

Linguistic Flotsam and Jetsam
There is an amazing one-to-one correspondence between spoken Pιčkιt and

"The tongue of man is a twisty thing."

PSL. So much so that all the individual phonemes are distinctly represented in the manual form of the word. However, because of the lack of ordering in time, the signed phonemes are essentially presented simultaneously.

There are several interesting consequences of this correspondence. First, morphological and phonemic analysis of the spoken language is greatly simplified--words are in one-to-one correspondence with individual manual signs, and their phonemic makeup, if not the exact ordering of the phonemes, is readily discernible by comparing verbal and manual manifestations of lexemes. Second, an intriguing mystery presents itself: how did these two modes develop historically, each presumably influencing the other throughout the history of Pιčkιt and PSL? Finally, it is hypothesized that fluency in PSL results in immediate and remarkable abilities to solve anagrams in Pιčkιt--this hypothesis has not yet been tested.

Language acquisition in Pιčkιt is still quite mysterious as well--who can hear to acquire the verbal language? Perhaps this aspect of the environment has driven the convergence of verbal and manual forms of the language.

Anthropological Bric-a-brac

"If one wishes to promote the life of language, one must promote the life of community--a discipline many times more trying, difficult, and long than that of linguistics, but having at least the virture of hopefulness."
--Wendell Berry

Pιčkιt are slowly being drawn into the wider world, despite their agoraphobic tendencies. Some of the interactions are beneficial to the Pιčkιt people and their culture, others are not.

Bloodhounds have become highly prized pets in many Pιčkιt villages. Their reputation for a keen sense of smell resonates well in Pιčkιt culture. Many of my Pιčkιt friends who have adopted these dogs seem to be less stoic and more enthusiastic in their daily life. This, I think, is good--but only time will tell.

Improved home-building technology has resulted in drier, more weather-resistant housing for the Pιčkιt, a definite advantage. However, the primary source of newer home-building materials over the last few years has been a somewhat less-than-scrupulous metal siding salesman. While newer Pιčkιt houses keep out the fog and rain, they do not dampen the sound of the rain, which is louder than ever.

As a result, PSL has become more of a visual/manual mode of communication indoors. What effect this will have in the long term on Pιčkιt culture and, more importantly, the Pιčkιt language, is unclear.

I have considered introducing better, noise-reducing building materials, but I am still wrestling with the linguistic and anthropological ethical considerations of such an act.

Tentative Conclusions

"Language without meaning is meaningless."
--Roman Jakobson

research is necessary to unravel the intricacies of this system. Said research will require more and abundant funding.

Evans, Nicholas and David Wilkins. 2000. In the mind's ear: The semantic extensions of perception verbs in Australian languages. Language 76.546-592.

Sweetser, Eve. 1990. From etymology to pragmatics. Metaphorical and cultural aspects of semantic structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Viberg, Åke. 1984. The verbs of perception: A typological study. Explanations for language universals, ed. by Brian Butterworth, Bernard Comrie, and Östen Dahl, 123-62. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Claude Searsplainpockets Somewhere in Asia

0 This paper was made possible by LAME grant #7-89GF56SR/TEG4-156G*DF/789-TYH15TR67/645-Y6TGH1DF3S/4GR-56E45W-E61/2G-3F-ASG415E/-R6G1-ERA5/-3GA*E, and the complex number i + 2.3.

Letters to the Editor
Are Turkish and Amharic Related? Are They Ever!--April May June
SpecGram Vol CXLIX, No 4 Contents