You don’t say…

It’s no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase “as pretty as an airport” appear.

— Douglas Adams

I haven’t researched this claim, but likely it’s true.

Still, language can elude our most basic assumptions. I try to keep my preconceptions about any new topic in check by remembering the few things I know about Gaidhlig (Scottish Gaelic):

  • There’s no word for “yes.”
  • There’s no word for “no.”
  • There’s no verb for “to have.”

You’d think those were fairly basic elements of any language. And of course it’s possible to convey in Gaelic the meaning we manage in English with yes, no, and have. You just can’t convey it with one-to-one equivalent words, the way you could, say, with oui, non, and avoir.

For yes and no, most often you re-use a verb in a specific form:

  • A bheil sibh a Inbhir Nis? (Are you from Inverness?)
  • Tha. / Tha mi a Inbhir Nis. (I am [= Yes ]. / Yes, I’m from Inverness.)
  • Chan eil. / Chan eil mi a Inbhir Nis. (I’m not. / No, I’m not from Inverness)

For to have, most often you use a form of aig (“at”).

  • Tha taigh aig Catriona. (There is a house at Catherine = Catherine has a house.)

Gaelic’s basic pattern is VSO (verb – subject – object), as compared with the basic SVO (subject -verb – object) order in English. That doesn’t mean you can’t use any other order, just that this is the predominant one for declarative sentences.

Linguist Nicholas Ostler, in Empires of the Word, combines those patterns with an account of one expert’s preconceptions shattering. Geoffrey Pullum, a linguistics professor, was lecturing on such patterns. He gave examples of SVO (like English and French), SOV (like Turkish and Japanese), VSO (like Gaelic and Welsh), and VOS (Malagasy, Fijian). He then said, “There are no object-initial languages.”

A student in class, Desmond Derbyshire, raised his hand. “Excuse me, sir — I speak an object-initial language.”

Derbyshire had learned Hixkaryana, a language spoken by fewer than a thousand people, while working in Brazil.