In my linguistic research into the Ik language, I’m moving beyond just collecting lists of single words. Now I’m gathering lists of sentences and even whole texts, like stories. As a result, I’m starting to pick up on some of Ik’s interesting, unique characteristics. For example, Ik expresses the ‘present progressive’ tense in a peculiar way. English expresses the same tense by adding the suffix ‘-ing’ to the end of verbs, as in: ‘She is cooking’ or ‘he is running home’. If I’m not mistaken, German and Spanish mark the present progressive in a similar way: by adding a suffix to the verb. French, on the other hand, expresses an action being carried out at the present moment by adding the phrase en train de, which means something like ‘in the process of…’ So if one says in French il se lève, that can mean both ‘he gets up (normally, usually)’ or ‘he is getting up’. But if a French speaker really wants to stress the idea that the person is in the process of getting up right now as we speak, she might say il est en train de se lever.
In Ik, the present progressive tense is expressed by adding a conjugated form of the verb cem before the infinitive of the main verb in question. The root cem means ‘fight, battle, make war’. If one wanted to say ‘she braids her sister’s hair’ in Ik, it would come out like sikwá sits’á eyáti (literally, ‘braids-she hair of-sister’). But to signify an action of braiding hair in the present moment, as an ongoing activity, an Ik might say instead cema sikwéso sits’á eyáti, which reads literally ‘fighting-she to-braid hair of-sister’, and in translation ‘she is braiding her sister’s hair’.
Now, it’s tempting for a linguistic anthropologist like myself to read an interpretation into all this. At first glance, it would appear that in the worldview of the Ik, life is such a struggle that it’s a real fight, a battle, to carry out any activity. It would seem that for humans in a difficult situation like that of the Ik, life is war—war against the world. To willfully accomplish anything, one must fight it out with the opposing forces. Moreover, if there is famine (as there has often been among the Ik) and disease, bringing weakness of body and will, to do anything right now and continuously may feel like a battle. But as tempting as this interpretation might be, I must keep in mind a phenomenon known to linguists as grammaticalization, which is just a five-dollar word that means this: languages tend to take, over time, certain words with very specific meanings and turn them into words that have a grammatical function rather than a specific meaning of their own. For example, in the French, it’s possible (though I’m not sure), that the phrase en train de really used to be related to the English word train. Both ‘trains’ and ‘continuous activities’ kind of process along a path, such that it’s not hard to see the relation. But today, the phrase en train de also has a grammatical function, which is to give verbs a progressive feel. Another example would be the English word get. Alone, get means ‘to receive’, ‘to acquire’, ‘to fetch’, etc. But in modern English get can have the grammatical function of causation. ‘To get the car washed’ means ‘to cause the situation in which the car is washed’. The point is that over many generations, speakers lose sight of the meanings of certain words that end up taking on grammatical functions. As such, it’s quite possible that the Ik word cem no longer evokes a sense of struggle when used to denote the present progressive tense. If that’s the case, then the word cem has been grammaticalized.
But that brings up interesting questions about the origin of the Ik language, and of human language in general. If cem has been grammaticalized and has lost its original, vivid overtones, that implies that at some point in history it had not yet been grammaticalized! So even though it may be inappropriate for me to read a meaning into cem that is not there today, it may still be true that in the shrouded past of the Ik, their intense life-and-death struggle left its tell-tale mark on the Ik language itself. As we ponder the mysterious origins of language, we can imagine peoples all over the globe reacting and responding to their environment and giving linguistic expression to it. Today, our languages are littered with forgotten historical artifacts. The ancient, primal expressions of our ancestors have been layered over again and again by the sediment of time. How many of you think of the fact that the word express, originally from Latin, at some point in history meant ‘to squeeze out’, such that to ex-press something may have meant ‘to squeeze a word out of something’ or maybe ‘to squeeze a word out of yourself about something’? Or what about how we express the ‘future tense’ in English? Have you ever considered that when you say ‘I will weed my garden’, you may be echoing people hundreds of years ago, for whom to bring the future into the present, an exertion of will was required? ‘Will you come tomorrow’ means ‘do you will to come tomorrow?’ ‘Will you to come tomorrow?’ ‘Will you will to come tomorrow?’
In the end, ‘exerting your will to make the future present’ (English future tense) and ‘engaging in a struggle to remain in the present’ (Ik present progressive tense) are both profound indicators of what it means to be human. And that’s why I love language.