How do you say "laptop" in Lakota? What about "Guinea pig"?

Lakota is one of the Sioux family of languages, spoken in North Dakota and South Dakota. Guinea pigs are not an indigenous species in the Dakotas, so Lakota didn't always have a name for these creatures. And obviously it hasn't always had a name for laptop computers. But it has both now.

We may think that things from elsewhere should just come with names from elsewhere. That's how we so often do it in English these days: Someone brings something from somewhere and uses the name it came with — or comes up with a more saleable version of the name. Whatever their origins, words emerge on the common market of the English language and are taken up or ignored like new products in the store. But not all languages do it that way. Not all languages even can do it that way.

Consider Chinese, for example. Any word borrowed into Chinese has to fit into the syllables represented by Chinese characters — even if the individual sounds occur in Chinese, if they don't occur in the desired combination, you just can't do it. And, for added complication, each character has meaning attached to it. When Coca-Cola first came to China, shopkeepers came up with approximations that sometimes had unfortunate literal meanings, such as "female horse fastened with wax" and "bite the wax tadpole."

The Coca-Cola company then came up with an official branding that meant "permit the mouth to be able to rejoice" and sounded close enough: Ke Kou Ke Le (sounds sort of like "cuh coe cuh luh"). That's in Mandarin, of course — the characters stay the same in other dialects, but the pronunciation doesn't! Some words borrowed into Chinese are just translated into existing terms without attention to the sound: "Laptop" is bidian, short for bijixing diannao, which is literally "notes model computer" (even more literally "writing mark model lightning brain"). "Guinea pig" is tunshu, literally "pig rodent."

Icelanders have a strong preference for keeping their language as "pure" as possible. They also want their words to work properly with Icelandic grammar, which has several forms for each word to suit different grammatical functions. When a new Icelandic word is needed, there is often a sort of national conversation led by experts, and an official institute gets to make the final decision about new words. The words most often make use of Icelandic roots. "Laptop" is fartölva, from far "travel" plus tölva "computer"; tölva in turn is a blend of tala "number" with völva, an old word for a female soothsayer. And "Guinea pig"? Naggrís, from naga "gnaw" and grís "pig."

France has an official organization, the Académie Française, with 40 luminaries appointed for life, that acts as the official deciding voice on what words are and are not "real" French — at least in France. (Québec, in Canada, has its own Office Québécois de la Langue Française, and its decisions, which apply just to the French used in the province of Québec, are often more conservative than those of the Académie Française: la fin de semaine is preferred to France's le weekend, for example.) So laptop computer is ordinateur portable ("portable computer"; ordinateur was coined by a French professor of philology in 1955 in response to a request from IBM France — they weren't going to just use the English word!). "Guinea pig" is cochon d'Inde — "pig of India" — which is no more accurate than the English term (the geographical errors have to do with trade routes in the 1500s).

How about Lakota? This language has just a few thousand speakers, and it's not the official language of a country. Indeed, pressure from the surrounding English-speaking culture has threatened its survival. Many Lakota children grow up speaking English. To keep the language alive and thriving, revitalization programs have been launched, and every year there is a Lakota Summer Institute, where the language is studied, learned, and added to. It includes a seminar where gaps in the language are addressed, much like in Iceland, but the discussion happens around a table, where words are proposed and debated — and then the results are discussed online on a Lakota discussion forum with many more members. The output of this process, including words that are accepted and ones that are still being debated, is posted on the site Kiwíčhoiye. The process is now growing beyond the Lakota Summer Institute, and words are being discussed and added year round.

There are four basic ways a gap in Lakota can be filled. Speakers can just swap in the non-Lakota word — but that's what preservationists want to avoid. Speakers could just avoid the term because it's a non-Lakota concept — but that's not always possible. They can adapt the borrowed word, much as Chinese often does. Or they can come up with a new word using their own vocabulary roots, much as Icelandic usually does.

The last option was historically popular. Back when the first automobiles were introduced, they got the name iyéčhiŋka íŋyaŋke, which means "by itself it runs" (which translates auto "self" and mobile "moving"). Over time, that merged and shortened to iyéčhiŋkiŋyaŋke, and the current pronunciation trims it even a bit more, to iyéčhiŋkyaŋke. On the other hand, sometimes words were borrowed — but always adapted to a suitable Lakota form. The word for "cat" is pusíla, an adaptation of a common English term, and the word for "pig" is khukhúše, which traces back to French cochon.

From about the 1950s until recently, however, English was increasingly used in place of Lakota. Either an English word would be used unaltered, or the speakers would simply switch entirely to speaking in English when necessary. As a result, the Lakota Summer Institute has a lot of gaps to fill from the last half century. The institute tends to come up with words from Lakota roots, but sometimes an adaptation is preferred. And sometimes there is a contest between the two. For example, there are two proposed terms for "curry." One is pȟayá iȟ'áŋpi, which means "spicily they cook it." The other is kalí, which may be borrowed from "curry," but it's still adapted to Lakota pronunciation. The Lakota speakers on the forum and on Kiwíčhoiye get to test it.

For example, they created a word for "Guinea pig." But it doesn't have anything to do with pigs or other places. It's itȟúŋggleška, which means "spotted rat." They also created a word for "laptop computer": šiyútakaŋ. It's a direct translation of the English "lap top." But it's their word — and it's helping preserve the roots of their language.