Starvation, near-freezing temperatures, and days spent wandering the Siberian wilderness were just a few of the hazards faced by medical scholar Dina Lazareevna Jochelson-Brodskaya in the course of the Museum’s Jesup North Pacific Expedition, an ambitious anthropological survey that took place at the turn of the 20th century.
Led by Franz Boas, considered today to be the father of modern anthropology, the expedition was organized in part to document indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest Cost of North America and the eastern coast of Siberia.
To survey the Koryak, Yukaghir, and Sakha peoples of Siberia, Boaz recruited a leading ethnographer, Waldemar Jochelson, who had spent considerable time in Siberia.
Jochelson’s wife, Dina Jochelson-Brodskaya, accompanied him to the field. A medical scholar whose interests included the measuring of human anatomical traits, Brodskaya was responsible for collecting data and capturing photographs that documented the cultures of the region’s Koryak, Yukhagir, and Sakha peoples.
When the Brodskaya-Jochelson party party arrived to begin their work in Kuska, Siberia, in 1900, they received unwelcome news—the populations they were attempting to survey had recently been decimated by disease, scattering the remaining tribes. To conduct the survey, the couple had to travel across some of Earth’s most hostile terrain. At various points in their journey, they lost horses in snowstorms, wandered for days in the wilderness, and risked starvation.
Through it all, Jochelson-Brodskaya collected data, including physical measurements of 900 individuals for anthropometric studies, and took most of the 1,200 photographs on the trip, an extensive cache of which is available online.
Hey Hannibal fandom! Here’s how to say “A person who has eaten seven people” in Southern Yukaghir, a critically endangered language spoken by 5-10 people in Siberia.
purk-in ʃoromo lee-je ʃoromo
[seven-ATTR person eat-ATTR] person
That’s in IPA, or the International Phonetic Alphabet. A few sounds are pronounced differently; u is pronounced like ‘oo’ in 'hoot’; 'i’ is pronounced like the 'ea’ in 'heat’; ʃ is pronounced like 'sh’ in 'shoot’; 'o’ is pronounced like the 'o’ in 'hope’; 'e’ is pronounced like the 'a’ in 'hate’ [sorry for the nice words as examples; I’m trying to use the same consonants]; when there’s two letters in a row it means that sound is longer than usual; 'j’ is pronounced like the 'y’ in 'yet’; the dash-es mark boundari-es within a word, like English plural -s; they are=nt pronounce-d (that one = marks a clitic boundary; I don’t have the space to explain here what a clitic is, but please ask if you’re curious). Spelled out in English it would be:
poorkeen showrowmow LAY-yay showrowmow
[seven-ATTR person eat-ATTR] person
The words below the example above are called a gloss. They show which word is which (word order in one language can be very different from that of English) and show the internal structure of the words. The -ATTR suffix is attributive; it means that the verb and number (numbers behave like verbs in Yukaghir) are a property of the noun, and aren’t the main verb of the sentence.
I hope you’ve gained some esoteric and pragmatically useless information!
Certainly, then, words like mama and dada wouldn’t necessarily stay the same, or even close to the same, in languages around the world and over tens of thousands of years. So what happened?
The answer lies with babies and how they start to talk. The pioneering linguist Roman Jakobson figured it out. If you’re a baby making a random sound, the easiest vowel is ah because you can make it without doing anything with your tongue or lips. Then, if you are going to vary things at all, the first impulse is to break up the stream of ahhh by closing your lips for a spell, especially since you’ve been doing that to nurse. Hence, mmmm, such that you get a string of mahs as you keep the sound going while breaking it up at intervals. […] Nichols has proposed that the reason a language like Yukaghir’s pronouns for I and you look so much like the mama/tata alternation—as well as why French has moi and toi and English once had me and thou—is because even as these languages have changed over time, the sounds of the words for I and you have been influenced by the way mama and tata differ. The m sound is used for what is closest—mama for Mommy and “me” for the self. The t sound—often learned just after m—is for what’s just one step removed from the closest: Daddy hovering just over there, which we can understand would feel like “you” rather than “(Mommy and) me.