In 1993, the Guinness Book of World Records declared the word "mamihlapinatapai" to be the world's most succinct word. I heard this and thought, "Seven syllables isn't exactly succinct," but then I learned its meaning: "A look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that they both desire but which neither one wants to start." Like a kiss, or a game of rock-paper-scissors. What a beautiful way to say it, as opposed to how it sounds in English: "And then we were both, like, uhhhh..."*
The word mamihlapinatapai is Yaghan, an indigenous language from Tierra del Fuego; it's the language of the Yagan peoples, who populated the archipelago for over 10,000 years before Magellan "found" it in 1520 and basically set them up to be slaughtered by Europeans. Now the language that described life for the people who lived at the very southernmost tip of the habitable world for a thousand centuries may be coming to an end in ours -- there's only one living speaker of Yaghan left in Chile, and she's in her seventies.
Truth? I cribbed most of this off the Endangered Languages Alliance site. I was poking around on it because I've recently joined the Board at Bowery Arts & Science, and Bowery founder Bob Holman is involved with the ELA, and BAS also sponsors some endangered language projects, which I'm trying to learn more about, because it overlaps with the mission to keep the oral tradition alive and vital, and also because it's sort of my homework.
But, like, I mean, I dunno. Languages change, you know; whatevs. They're dying out all the time, another language every two weeks. I think about my recent travels to Amsterdam and France, where everybody was speaking English, a language born of a world view of foreign origin, imposed upon most of Europe like an ill-fitting costume. I think about all the things I can only say in Yiddish -- "ungapatchka," or "kvelling" -- which have no English analog.
And then I read this on the ELA site:
"As languages die, thousands of years of accumulated human knowledge, experience, creativity and evolution goes with them."
As we say in Internet-ese these days, THIS.