James Meador

Dank Lexeme Stash: Tungusic Ideophones



The Tungusic language family is the largest and most diverse language family in Northeast Asia, but like many language families it may be gone within a century. Most languages in the family are already extinct or moribund due to the expansion of Chinese and Russian majorities and state institutions into the region; this process of settler colonialism was roughly contemporaneous with a more familiar story from the other side of the Pacific. Compared to the territory that became the American West, this "Wild East" took longer to win, had less consolidated state power for longer, and more and bigger wars (most but not all involving Japan).

Historically the Tungusic languages centered on the Amur/Heilongjiang river and its tributaries, a massive river system whose channels now form thousands of kilometers of the Russian-Chinese border. They stretch from Ewenk in Eastern Siberia over to Orok in the sea of Japan, from Ewen on the Arctic coast down to Manchu in North China. The last is the only branch of the family with writing systems that predate the twentieth century, serving as a language of state in China most recently in the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty. Even after it ceased to be widely spoken it continued to be used widely as a way of protecting sensitive written communication. The Tungusic languages' greatest international claim to fame is as the source of the word shaman, a type of ritual specialist with a long history in the region.



Tungusic languages are rich in ideophones, a class of words similar to interjections. Think of them as a language’s built-in sound effects. While English has lots more ideophones than might appear at first blush, Tungusic ideophones are pretty mind-blowing in their quantity and specificity. Here are a few examples given in rough transliteration with source language in parentheses:


chimcharam : growing fainter with distance (Nanai)
huwasa-hisa : stepping on dry leaves (Manchu)
suwak-sik : several whips striking (Manchu)
peg : falling down (Evenki)
kuwas-kis : dragging sacks of grain on a floor; foot dragging; sickle cutting; stick breaking (Manchu)
kuar : shaving wood (Udihe)
kanggur-kinggur : a large structure collapsing (Manchu)
cofok-cofok : deer buck hoof step (Udihe)
jang jing : birds looking for one another (Manchu)
leear : something damp falling / falling onto something damp (Nanai)
fak fik : fruit falling (Manchu)
chige-lebele : urinating (Udihe)
kuwas : chopping wood; falcon striking an object with its wings (Manchu)
sim : without sound (Nanai)

Color / movement

gilta gilti : shine, glitter, glow (Manchu)
c'am : until white (Udihe)
chuhir : a flash (Evenki)
gikpeletie : glittering and falling down - about beads (Manchu)
gialui : something light emerging from underneath something darker - bone emerging from meat (Nanai)
khutalatie : something small and red falling (Udihe)
shuwar : sword drawn from scabbard; snake moving rapidly; arrow in flight (Manchu)
gigbu-gigbu : showing teeth (Udihe)
bopial-bopial : opening and closing of animal mouth, human mouth, eyes (Nanai)


bildo-bildo : soft, slippery surface (Nanai)
efu-efu : light, fluffy (of buns) (Udihe)
heniumsek : momentary feeling of relief from heaviness (Nanai)
sefe-sefe : rough, horny (Udihe)


tegdim-tegdim : not tasty, with unpleasant smell (Udihe)
pekte pakta : perplexed, dismayed (Manchu)
chongish-topush : sound and image of a man chewing food (Evenki)
zongo-zongo : naked - stripping off clothes or sick (Udihe)
khaonk : losing consciousness (Nanai)


Tasting Notes

A core part of language is insulated from the medium in which it's realized. Whether you write a word with spray paint on a wall, say it out loud, or read it on a screen - there's a sense in which it remains the same word. In this light, what a word sounds like doesn't have to have anything more to do with what it stands for than the number of letters or amount of paint used to write it. Put another way, this just means the stuff that makes up a word's form doesn't need to have anything to do with its content. Standing out starkly against the background of these kinds of "arbitrary" or abstracted aspects of language, yet remaining firmly grounded in them, ideophones bring to mind digital simulations of an analogue medium.

Why aren't they simply analogue, full stop? Imagine for a moment that an evil being of great power seeks to lead our groovy synaesthetic experiences astray, and to this end introduces mistakes into Tungusic reference grammars so that we confuse khaonk with sim, bildo-bildo with chige-lebele. This demonic editorial intervention leaves us in pretty bad shape. For the list provided above, minus a piece or two of stray glitter, I don't see a principled way to link the remaining sound images and ideational/sensory content. Sound symbolism and related phenomena are part of our species being (h/t Kiki and Bouba). But whatever this universal capacity is, it gets diced and refried by all the languages into which it figures. This should not imply that ideophones are anything less than real, that their blurring of form/content is somehow a subjective illusion. If one insists they are illusions, then they must be shared ones - and that's pretty cool. At their limit ideophones form cloudy mirrors for extra-linguistic experience: a rich and continuously elaborated series of conduits conveying scraps of the texture of reality, multi-sensory mashups refracted virtually through linguistic structure. Yet like so much dubbed vinyl static, this texture is a simulation. I think a few important consequences follow from this. One that I've been ruminating over is that the languages where one finds Tungusic ideophones share the same flavor of being as the digital media that have come to play an increasingly important role in our and others' lives. This means they all share the same basic evanescence and fragility universally characteristic of digital processes. For endangered languages, just as much as the digital forms our sociality has assumed of late - forms that appear to the weary eye like so many bonsai kittens — once the program stops running, the simulation is over.

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