There are things that feel universal—concepts that we describe with words that seem too obvious to define. Like, of course it’s in the dictionary, but no I’ve never looked for it. But then again, there are those moments that challenge your words and your universals.
I had one of these moments in Summer 2019 when Ms. Sui Hnem Par and I were working on a project to translate children’s books into her mother tongue. We later distributed several hundred of these books to smiling children at a community event.
Ms. Par’s language is called Lautu or Lutuv and it is spoken in Chin State, Burma/Myanmar and also by several hundred people in Indianapolis, IN. Before our work with Ms. Par at the Chin Languages Research Project (CLRP) at Indiana University, the language had seen no linguistic description.
Although there has been little written on this language, there exists a writing system for Lutuv, recently created by native speakers and employed in two widely available documents: one describing the spelling conventions of the writing system, and a translation of the New Testament. It is Ms. Par’s goal to expand her people’s literary tradition further—creating and distributing children’s books is an important part of this goal.
Using Bloom, an open-source program by SIL for building libraries, we identified four suitable books to translate at different reading levels. We started with what we thought would be the easiest, a book containing simple repetitive sentences titled Opposites.
Translating this book was not easy, however. As soon as we began translation work, Ms. Par told me we would have to change the title. There is no translation for Opposites in Lutuv. I tried to put on a good scientist face, but inside I knew a fundamental needs-no-definition term of mine was crushed.
It is easy when you come across an apparent gap like this, to see the language as lacking something. “There is no word for opposite in Lutuv?” “Really?” But words are a dime a dozen. If a speaker needs a word to express a concept, they just create it, or borrow it from somewhere. In other words, it may look like a gap to an English speaker, but Lutuv speakers don’t miss it. If they did, they’d have filled it already.
We can always flip the situation. In English, I drink my coffee while I eat my soup and sandwich. But in Lutuv, I dang my coffee while I pa hrii my soup and ning my sandwich. We can recognize that eating soup is not quite like eating and not quite like drinking, but have you ever felt like you were lacking something by not having a special word for it? (If so, maybe you should make a new one or borrow pa hrii from Lutuv).
What do opposites do for us anyway? It’s not as straightforward as it seems. The term can describe contrary ideas with no middle ground like pass/fail. Or it can place words on a clear continuum, like the line connecting day with night which we know through experience passes through twilight.
But it can also create a kind of vague line linking concepts like happiness and sadness. Does happiness express just one feeling on the end of a spectrum? Does sadness? Mix hot and cold and you get warm, but I can feel both happy and sad without them mixing into some warm middle-ground emotion.
So, how do Lutuv speakers express oppositeness? contradiction? antithesis? polarity? When all was said and done, Ms. Par answered my question when she settled on the title Alu lipa “They are not the same.” Problem solved. It seems you don’t need a word to contain all the meanings that a seemingly fundamental concept like opposite holds for us English speakers. Lutuv has plenty of pairs of words we would call “opposites”. One door can be ‘open’ pahaw and another ‘closed’ khaa and they exist just fine being not the same.