Category Archives: dictionary

How a Pakistani novelist and translator learned to love dictionaries

(From Zocalo Public Square. Link to the complete article given below)

An image from a winter morning in Hyderabad, Pakistan, when I was four, forms my earliest memory of literacy.

Bundled up in layers of sweaters, I am reciting from an Urdu newspaper as I sit astride my neighbor’s pet goat. I am certain that the sequence of words or their relationships to each other made no sense to me. But my prowess in reading individual words made the exercise as meaningful and empowering as the ability to ride the goat.

That pride, perhaps, explained my ecumenical approach to reading texts in my native language. Possessed by the joy of recognizing words, I did not pass judgment as to the nature of the content, but devoured everything, from my grandfather’s homeopathy manuals to legal documents and exercise guides for warding off old age. A devoted reader does not discriminate between one arrangement of words and another, or between words and numbers. For someone in my situation, Anna Karenina and the railway timetable were one.

As I grew up and moved to Karachi and then Toronto, however, the order and meaning of words took on agonizing importance. I made language my career, becoming a novelist and translator of Urdu classics.

Expanding on the latter role, I eventually developed programs to reintroduce Urdu literature into schools in Pakistan and teach children the vocabulary necessary to understand them. Along the way, I would compile the Urdu language’s first online thesaurus. Oddly enough, it was not the early experience reading astride a goat that shaped my approach in working with children, but a more unfortunate early memory that served as a cautionary tale.

Read more at this Zocalo Public Square link

This language is only used when collecting nuts in New Guinea

(From Atlas Obscura. Link to the complete article given below)

A chain of mountains splits the center of Papua New Guinea, crossing east to west for nearly a thousand miles. These highlands are full of peaks and V-shaped valleys, covered in forest and hard to reach—a terrain that has isolated clans for millennia, leading to the country’s famously diverse languages and cultures.

On these mountains grow the pandanus tree, up to 90 feet tall and bearing clusters of knobbly, pineapple-like fruits; eaten raw or cooked, they taste a little like pecans. This dense, high-fat nut is preserved during famine, smashed into pudding, consumed during ceremonies, and connected to the earliest signs of humanity in Papua New Guinea. As far back as the Ice Age, residents were leaving the coasts to trek into the mountains to harvest them. Over time, the harvesting expeditions took on ritual significance, and spurred the development of a hidden form of language.

On pandanus-gathering expeditions, ordinary words cannot be spoken. Instead, people use pandanus talk. It is not a language of its own like Russian or Mandarin, but a style of language used in a special context, or what linguists call a “register.” Across Papua New Guinea, different clans with different languages all switch up their speech when they gather pandanus, lest they risk harming the harvest.

Back when Karl Franklin lived near Mount Giluwe, the second-highest mountain in Papua New Guinea, the surrounding area was believed to be inhabited by wild dogs. Franklin, a now-retired American linguist, first traveled to Papua New Guinea in 1958 to help catalog the local languages. He and his wife lived in a village with the Kewa people, five hours from the nearest government station. Franklin would spend the next few decades creating an alphabet for Kewa (then solely an oral language) and, eventually, compiling a dictionary.

Read more at this Atlas Obscura link