Man paddling canoe on a lake - Image by Nathan Peterson on Unsplash (RESIZED)

The last word

Published on 06 December 2019 Go back to The ACU Review

We asked our contributors for an endangered word or phrase that they felt was meaningful, evocative, or unique to the culture from it originates.

Faat sees ip̃op̃u raru p̃ur

A small stone can break a big canoe

‘This Nafsan saying, from the Efate island in central Vanuatu, reminds us that small impediments can stop large projects.’ - Nick Thieberger

yusa, wangsa, kyelsa, rasa

To come

‘In Thangmi, the language of the Thami people in central eastern Nepal, there are four words that cover the English verb ‘to come’: yusa means to come from above, or down the mountain, as in rain; wangsa means to come from below or up the mountain, kyelsa is to come from level horizontal plane or around a natural obstacle; and rasa means to come from an unspecified or unknown direction.’ - Mark Turin



‘In Gorwaa, the word tsitsihhi means 'arrowhead', 'spear-tip', or any other piece of metal fastened to a handle and used to do work (axe blade, hoe, etc).

But tsitsihhi can also mean ‘human embryo’. So, in Gorwaa, every person starts out as a little arrowhead inside the womb.’  - Andrew Harvey


The person of my heart

‘In the Nigerian language of Olùkùmi, the word for ‘lover’ is ęnętędó. This means ‘the person of my heart.' - Bolanle Arokoyo



‘In Híɫzaqv/Háiɫzaqv, the language of the Heiltsuk Nation, the month corresponding to January is associated not with a newborn, but with the first born in a family, and is therefore called n̓úláǧṃi, or the ‘eldest’. The Heiltsuk are an indigenous community whose traditional homeland is Bella Bella, on the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada.’ - Heiltsuk Language and Culture Mobilization Partnership

Ahakoa iti, ākona, kōrerotia

Learn a little, use a little  

‘In Māori, the word ako – used here in the passive form ākona – means to learn and teach. There is one word for both: we believe teaching is a process of learning, the only way to distinguish the two is by the context.’ - Hēmi Kelly​


I need it

‘Kanyen’kéha uses a system of nominal and verb elements, known as roots, to construct words. Sometimes these roots are obvious and sometimes they are only an echo or a suggestion. The word tewakatonhwentsyó:ni includes the root word for earth/land. The combination of elements indicates that the earth is doing something for me. In our materialistic North American culture, using this word is a reminder that the only things one truly ‘needs’ come from what the earth provides.’ - Nathan Thanyehténhas Brinklow

All the words above are reproduced here with our gratitude to the indigenous communities and speakers to whom they belong.