Language traditions, language development and cultural difference

[ Mark W Post ]
I was recently part of a conversation about language traditions and language development that was being conducted within the Galo tribe of Arunachal Pradesh.
The main focus of the conversation was days of the week.
Like many other languages of Arunachal Pradesh, words for “days of the week”, such as English’s Tuesday and Wednesday or Hindi’s maCgalavâra and budhavâra are not traditionally found in the Galo language.
However, in the modern Indian context, it is simply impossible to avoid referring to days of the week; many people, after all, have to work between Monday and Friday, children need to know which day is “second Saturday”, and if my brother has to attend a job interview on Friday at 10AM, I had better be able to tell him about it!
As a result, Galo speakers do the most natural thing, and borrow English or Hindi words to talk about days of the week, even when they are speaking Galo amongst one another.
It is possible to see this as a “problem” – there is a “hole” in Galo language, which is being “filled up” by borrowing words from other languages. In other words, most Galo speakers today – like most other people of Arunachal Pradesh today – are living inside months, weeks and days that are the same size and shape as the months, weeks and days as those of a speaker of Hindi, English, German or Japanese.
The difference is that since Galo has no traditional words to talk about these things, a Galo speaker has no choice but to use words from English, Hindi or Assamese to talk about them.
As a result, there was one suggestion to develop and standardize a set of Galo words to refer to the seven days of the international week.
Now, this sort of language development could, of course, be done in different ways.
It would be possible to research the traditional meanings of words like Sunday (from “sun” + “day”, i.e. “day of the Sun”) and Monday (from “moon” + “day”, i.e. “day of the moon”) and Tuesday (from “Tiw’s” + “day”, i.e. “day of Tyr, the (Germanic God of War”) – and form words with similar meanings in Galo.
It would also be possible to decide on a completely different set of words. Maybe instead of “day of Tyr, the God of War”, Tuesday should be called “Tani’s day!”
But on the other hand, should Galo speakers actually do this sort of language development at all?
Because the fact is that the absence of days of the week in Galo does not point to a “hole” in Galo language. Galo speakers have always had ways of referring to different days of the week, and different months of the year. They are simply different from the English, Hindi, Japanese and Greek ways of referring to them.
That is because, instead of dividing up the year into 12 sets of days named after Greek gods – some of which have 30 days, others 31 and one 28 (except on leap year) – Galo speakers have traditionally described moon cycles in accordance with a harvest calendar whose “months” are associated with some natural event: so, for example, deecww poolo comes from dee- ‘soil’ and cww- ‘cold; freezing’, and refers to a time of year when the temperature is especially low (around January-ish).
And, instead of referring to an absolute set of days of the week, Galo speakers have traditionally used a system for relative time reference: ‘hiloo ‘today’, ‘allo ‘tomorrow’, rov ‘day after tomorrow’, ‘rorv ‘day after day after tomorrow, ‘roten ‘day after day after day after tomorrow’…and so on.
If we notice the English translations for Galo ‘rorv and ‘roten, they sound very silly. Why? Because the English language doesn’t have these words. And that is because English speakers have developed a system of absolute time reference.
Galo, on the other hand, has a system of relative time reference. They are simply different sorts of systems – so it is not surprising that each language should lack words for the other sort of system. The same thing is true of so many other areas of cultural experience.
English has words for North and South, and Galo doesn’t. Here again, this is because English speakers use a system of absolute reference to cardinal directions. But Galo speakers traditionally did things differently.
Galo speakers refer to ‘tolo ‘up there; upriver; often Northward’ and ‘bolo ‘down there; downriver; often Southward’ – words which are missing from English. That is of course because English did not develop in a mountainous environment like Arunachal Pradesh, but instead developed through navigation of plains areas and oceans, in which cardinal directions are more useful – so these differences between culture and environment are reflected in the language.
So then, perhaps these differences should be protected?
Perhaps Galo speakers shouldn’t develop new words for “days of the week”, and shouldn’t develop new words for cardinal directions? Perhaps developing new words to match these “foreign concepts” will actually end up polluting the Galo language, and changing “pure Galo” into something that is half Galo, and half foreign? Maybe this sort of “language development” is actually more like “linguistic plastic surgery” – the language goes in as a unique individual, but comes out somehow looking just like everybody else?
These are difficult questions, and they are questions that I as a linguist cannot answer. Both sides have voiced real, serious concerns, and both arguments have validity.
To “develop” a language is to change it – usually, by creating new language to correspond to some new concept that wasn’t there before; often, by bringing in a concept that comes from another language and culture.
Certainly, there is a risk that the old ways of talking will be forgotten, and that traditional cultural norms will be changed. But there are really only two alternatives: one, we can continue using borrowed words from Hindi or English; or two: my brother can simply miss his appointment for a job interview.
Here, it is important to point out that Galo, and other languages of Arunachal Pradesh, are not the first language communities to face this “problem”. Almost every language on Earth has had to face this and similar issues.
The “seven-day week” has its origins in the modern-day Middle East around 2,500 years ago. At that time, the Romans were using an 8-day week based on a market calendar. Some other European languages were using a 9-day week. Early Chinese speakers used a 10-day week. The Aztecs and Mayas had 20-day months, each one divided into four 5-day weeks (with 5 extra days each year).
There is no particular reason why the Middle Eastern 7-day week had to succeed as an international standard – there is no particular advantage to it, and if you ask me, the Aztec and Mayan system sounds much more sensible – but it did succeed, and gradually over about 1,000 years most “major” languages in the world had adopted it.
Speakers of some languages decided to follow others in how they did this – for example, speakers of English and other Germanic languages simply copied the Greco-Roman tradition of referring to each of the days using the names or ideas of Greco-Roman Gods (and the celestial bodies they represented). Speakers of modern Chinese decided to do things differently. Chinese speakers simply say xîngqî yî‘Weekday 1’ (Monday), xîngqî èr ‘Weekday 2’ (Tuesday), xîngqî sân ‘Weekday 3’ (Wednesday)…and so on.
Each language community in Arunachal Pradesh will need to decide on their own preferred solution to this “problem” – when the world around us changes, we all need to decide, as groups and as individuals, how much we should change together with it, and how much change we should resist.
The most important thing, though, is that we should not become paralyzed, as language communities, by different opinions or different approaches to this problem.
My personal opinion is that it is possible to have it both ways. We can, I think, develop new words for new concepts at the same time as we retain the traditional words for traditional uses. We can understand and discuss the differences between them. And we can teach our children about these differences, and what they mean about their places, as speakers of tribal languages, in history, and in the present, and in the future.
This is the most important thing: whatever decisions are taken, they should be taken with open eyes, and with courage and confidence, and they must contribute to the vibrancy and sustainability of Arunachal Pradesh’s unique and valuable languages as they continue being spoken into the future.
And they must also allow my brother not to miss his Friday 10AM job interview.
(The writer is a Lecturer in Linguistics, The University of Sydney, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. He can be reached at