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The Last Place on Earth, New Scientist, June 16, 2007

The last place on earth where you can still hear the strangest languages ever spoken

THE death of any language is a tragedy, but some are a more distressing loss than others. A handful of endangered languages are the last refuges of odd linguistic features that, once their host language disappears, will be gone forever.

One is Tofa, spoken by a handful of nomads in the Eastern Sayan mountains of southern Siberia. Starting in the 1950s, the Soviet government forced the Tofa people to learn Russian and abandon their traditional ways of life. Now, there are only 25 Tofa speakers left, all elderly. When they die, one utterly unique feature of Tofa will disappear: a suffix, -sig, that means “to smell like.” In Tofa you can add -sig to the word ivi-, (reindeer) to describe someone who smells like a reindeer. No other language in the world is known to have this kind of suffix.

Linguist K. David Harrison of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania has documented similar examples of endangered “information packaging” systems in his book When Languages Die. One of these is the body counting system used in an estimated 40 languages in Papua New Guinea. In languages like Kaluli and Kobon, the words for numbers are the names of body parts. So 1 to 10 in Kobon are “little finger, ring finger, middle finger, forefinger, thumb, wrist, forearm, inside elbow, bicep, shoulder.” To count higher, you count the collarbone and the hollow at the base of the throat – and then right down the other side, all the way to 23. You can count to 46 by counting back the other way and even higher by starting over and doing it all again. So 61 in Kobon is “hand turn around second time go back biceps other side”….