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The Yaghan/Yámana lived in the lowlands, but spoke the Mount Everest of languages.

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Right down the bottom

The Yaghan people – or their remnants – are native to South America’s southernmost tip, the land of ice and fire called Tierra del Fuego. Research suggests they arrived about 6,000 years ago.

A 19th-century Anglican clergyman with the Patagonian Mission Society coined their name. He was the first to assume the herculean task of learning their language. (Defying all attempts to link it to other local languages, Yaghan is a language isolate: it has no demonstrable kinship with any other language, living or dead.)

The Yaghan called themselves Yámana, which as a noun meant human. Thus a hand with the suffix -yámana was a human hand, not an animal’s claw. Yámana as a verb meant to live, to breathe, to be happy, to recover from illness or to be sane.

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There’s more where this came from

Disease wreaked havoc as 19th-century immigrants – Slavs and Germans – displaced the natives and cleared their land for sheep-farming. Until then the Yaghan/Yámana had been incessant wanderers. A stationary Yaghan was an oxymoron: the men always hunting marine mammals from their canoes, the women relentlessly searching for crustaceans and fish . The Austrian missionary-anthropologist Martin Gusinde noted their restlessness, describing them as “fidgety birds of passage who feel happy … only when they are on the move”.

At first their language was assumed to be just as primitive as their lifestyle, for the Yaghan/Yámana people lived virtually naked, despite a chilly climate where summer snow flurries surprised nobody. Clothes just made you colder when they inevitably got wet. Smearing your body with seal fat was more effective. Their higher-than-average metabolisms and body temperatures did the rest.

Frequent cloud and fog prevented evaporation, keeping the ground permanently wet and intensifying the cold. Yet everyone slept in flimsy temporary seal-skin and sapling huts or behind rock shelters, or just in their canoes.

Fire was paramount. The Yaghan/Yámana could even start and maintain fires on rain-soaked bogs. Fire cooked their food and kept them warm when the seal fat needed help. They sent smoke signals warning of danger or alerting friends to sightings of marine mammals. Despite the risk, they even maintained fires in their canoes.

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Fire in the hole

The seasons governed their world. The appearance of the blue sea-anemones heralded spring. The first snipes brought in the canoe-building season. Their knowledge of nature was astonishing.

Two supernatural brothers with opposing views on everything dominated their religious practices. Their myths involved a powerful sea lion and his human wife and stories about a giant albatross and sacred humming birds. Spirits, malicious and kindly, crowded their everyday world. Any shaman could control the weather (if he so desired). Tradition held that women were once the ruling class, but lost that role after a male rebellion. The nearby Ona/Selk’nam had been their sworn enemies since, well, forever.

The first outsider to study their language was the British missionary Thomas Bridges (1842-1898). Abandoned as an infant and raised by a clergyman, Bridges was only 18 years old when he took over the Tierra del Fuego mission, beginning his life-long task of mastering their language for the transmission of Holy Scripture. At his death his dictionary-grammar of Yaghan/Yámana had over 30,000 definitions. But it was still nowhere near completion.


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Dressed for the occasion

British explorer, Captain James Weddell, had encountered the Yaghan/Yámana back in 1822. He surmised their language was a debased form of Hebrew. Wedell’s report fueled speculation in Europe about Noah’s descendants after the Flood and about the Lost Tribe of Israel.

Barely a decade later, Captain Robert FitzRoy – who later commanded HMS Beagle on which young Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking ideas germinated – abducted four young Yaghans to England. They were to be inculcated with the English language and some basic Scripture and returned to their desolate homeland to form the nucleus of a Christian community.

One soon succumbed to smallpox. The other three, El’leparu (“York Minster”), O’run-del’lico (“Jemmy [or Jimmy] Button”) and Yok’cushly (“Fuegia Basket”) survived the round trip, learning enough English to get by. They even met the King.

We know little of what eventually happened to “York” and “Fuegia”, but Jemmy Button’s experience is better documented. On their return to Tierra del Fuego Jemmy shocked everyone – especially himself – by discovering that he could no longer converse in Yaghan. Only English words came out. The British ship left them, promising to return in a year. But FitzRoy reluctantly conceded that Jemmy – the three survivors’ best English-speaker – would probably prove useless as an interpreter for future missionaries.

A year later the returning ship saw Jemmy had completely recovered his native language, married and reverted to the Yaghan/Yámana lifestyle. He refused to return to England. (He had, however, taught some English to a few Yaghan kids.)

Some 25 years later – his knowledge of English still robust despite sporadic chances to exercise it – Jemmy was implicated in a missionary’s murder. He emphatically denied involvement and escaped punishment.

He died in 1864, aged about 50. One of his sons, dubbed “Threeboy” by the missionaries, was whisked away to England, but probably soon returned to his people.

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Jemmy Button, before & after

Young Thomas Bridges firstly assumed – just like Charles Darwin who’d visited the region in HMS Beagle in the 1830’s – that these people occupied the bottom rung of humanity, along with the Tasmanian aborigines and the southern African Bushmen. So how difficult could their primitive language be? In any case, Christians are exhorted to gather all nations unto the Lord, so Bridges plunged into the Yaghan language.

His jaw dropped once he saw what this entailed.

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Looks aren’t everything

The language was so metaphor-dependent that finding the true meaning of a word was like peeling an onion.

“Monotony” was defined as the absence of male friends.

“Depression”  was represented by the single word describing the phase in a crab’s life-cycle between the time it sloughs off its old shell and the time its new shell has grown.

One spoke of adultery by using the name of a species of hawk able to hover over its intended victim.

The word for a fur seal could mean a fur seal, or could refer to the relatives of a murdered man.

The list was endless. But Bridges persisted.

He noticed the underlying logic of these metaphors was intimately bound up with the Yaghans’ lifestyle. For instance, “the thawing of snow” was synonymous with the word for scar and also for teaching. The connection was this: snow melts in patches and leaves a smooth, flat surface (a scar). And snow thaws in the spring, when the Yaghan/Yámana start a new wandering cycle and the children are taught the names of everything that swims, walks, crawls, floats, sprouts, flies, climbs and slithers.

They routinely applied observations of the natural  world to human affairs.

A hiccup was a tangle of fallen trees blocking the path forward.

Sleet (always a threat, the shaman’s powers notwithstanding) was the same word as fish scales.

Old age was easily identified by rough, wrinkly skin, or mussels out of season.

And the word for bog was the same as a mortal wound (or a mortally wounded man). The mossy, water-oozing bogs of Tierra del Fuego cover the valley floors, laid out flat like a wounded man. Their dull yellow and reddish-brown hues resemble the blood and pus from a suppurating wound.

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There was talk of the Lost Tribe of Israel


Interestingly, the science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation envisaged a similar linguistic scenario. In Season 5, the Federation Starship Enterprise attempts contact with the remote Tamarian people. The Tamarians’ infrequent encounters with Federation starships in the previous century were mutually frustrating since even basic communication proved impossible. Despite the Federation’s arsenal of advanced linguistic software, Tamarian remained incomprehensible.

The Enterprise‘s captain is kidnapped and forced to cooperate with his Tamarian counterpart in fighting a monster on the planet’s surface. Gradually the captain deduces that the rules of Tamarian don’t allow straightforward declarative sentences. Every utterance is an allegory, simile or metaphor drawn from the Tamarians’ inexhaustible fund of mythology and folklore.

The name of a semi-mythical king combined with “on the ocean” means to be alone.

“His arms held wide” means friendship or cooperation. And so on.

As this fundamental feature of Tamarian becomes clearer, the Enterprise‘s officers explain it thus:

Imagine a linguistic community using English vocabulary and grammar but  communicating only in the Tamarian style. Somebody says Juliet on the balcony. If you didn’t know who this Juliet was, or why she was on the balcony, then this expression would be meaningless. Your ignorance of this image’s Shakespearean origin would prevent you understanding its reference to the first flushes of an ardent romance. It would still be English, of course, but its meaning would completely elude you.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men is another example. We understand this to describe a bad situation which cannot be remedied. But if you had no idea of who Humpty Dumpty was, what he sat on and what happened to him, then this utterance would confound you.

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His sails unfurled = Full speed ahead

It’s therefore apparent that understanding the Tamarian language depends on learning the culture – the mythology, history and folklore.

Thus the normal learning sequence is inverted.

Normally we assume that mastering the language must precede understanding the culture. But with the Tamarians and the Yaghan/Yámana, an intimate knowledge of the culture is an absolute prerequisite for coming to grips with the target language.

This is the paradox Bridges faced in mastering Yaghan. Making sense of even the basic language required an intimate knowledge of the culture. But that knowledge could only come from mastering the language.

It’s a wonder his brain didn’t explode.

In his genre-bending travel book In Patagonia (1977) – from which some of these details come – Bruce Chatwin wrote that verbs dominated the Yaghan/Yámana language. Its verbs were astonishingly specific, like aiapi (to bring a special kind of spear and put it in a canoe ready for hunting). Or a compound verb meaning to let someone you dislike enter a dangerous situation without warning or stopping [him].

Chatwin explained:

The Yaghans had a dramatic verb to capture every twitch of the muscles, every possible action of nature or man. The verb  îya means ‘to moor your canoe to a streamer of  kelp’; ôkon ‘to sleep in a floating canoe’ (and quite different from sleeping in a hut, on the beach or with your wife); ukômona ‘to hurl your spear into a shoal of fish without aiming for a particular one’; wejna ‘to be loose or easily moved as a broken bone or a blade in a knife’ – ‘to wander about, or roam, as a homeless or lost child’ – ‘to be attached yet loose, as an eye or bone in its socket’ – ‘to swing, move or travel’ – or simply ‘to exist or be’.

And so it went. Peeling the onion’s layers took decades. European diseases ripped through the indigenous population. The survivors lost their traditions. The language shrunk. By the late 1900’s it entered the critically endangered category of languages.

At the moment only one Yaghan/Yámana native-speaker is left alive. She’s a 90-year-old woman living near Puerto Williams, Chile.

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