Posted by: Rob Viens | February 15, 2013


On February 15th, after a few “days off” from his journal, Darwin shares a little bit about the events of the past few days. During that time, the captain returned to Woolya Cove to check up on the abandoned mission with the hopes that this protégé remained “civilized”.  Although that fact that Matthews “bailed” on the mission a week earlier, FitzRoy found things to be in pretty good order:

“The Captain, in his boat, paid the Fuegians a visit, & has brought back a very prosperous account of them. — Very few of the things belonging to Jemmy, York or Fuegia had been stolen & the conduct of the natives was quite peacible. — If the garden succeeds, this little settlement may be yet the means of producing great good & altering the habits of the truly savage inhabitants” (Feb 11-15)

Funny how when they were allowed to return to their own cultural identity without a European chaperon, the Fuegians did just fine. Imagine that…

To his credit, from the time FitzRoy decided to take the Fuegians back to England 1830 he made some effort to learn a little bit of their language. This was actually more difficult that it might sound, because the Yaghan language is completely different than any other language in the world. In linguistics, this is what is called a “language isolate”. Let me elaborate a little…

Many world languages belong to a “language family” which all derive from a common “root” language.  For example, French, Spanish and Italian are all “Romance” languages – derived from Latin, i.e., “Rome”.  English, on the other hand belongs to the Germanic Language family. These languages (plus several others) have some common connections with the “Indo-European” languages.

Language families (from Wikipedia Commons – click below for larger image):

language families
Occasional, however, linguists discover a language that is unique – not part of one of these larger families. Many of these languages belong to small, isolated populations, such as Burushaski (spoken in northern Pakistan), Pyu (spokenin New Guinea) and Basque (spoken in Europe). Presumably, these are languages that evolved on their own rather than branching off from somewhere else.

Because of the small size of the populations speaking many of these languages, a significant number of languages isolates are disappearing (endangered) or already no longer in use by anyone living today (extinct). It is a shame, because you can’t truly understand the nuances of the spoken word from written documents alone. One small consolation is that several of these extinct languages have been captured on film or audio recordings – often times delivered one of the last surviving native speakers of the language.  On such example of this is shown in the film clip below, where you can hear a little bit of the native Yaghan language spoken by its last remaining native speaker.

One final note – there is a lot (relatively speaking) of comments online about one “famous” Yaghan word that is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most succinct word”. That word is Mamihlapinatapai and it is defined as “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that they both desire but which neither one wants to start”. I wonder if Darwin considered using that word regarding his earlier relationship with Fanny Owen…

Here is a list of several other Yaghan words, taken directly from the Wikipedia page on the subject:

  • man: yagan, yámana
  • woman: kíppa
  • dog: yasála, jesæla
  • blood: sápa
  • arm: kaméin, kamæn
  • heart: sáeskin, sæskin
  • moon: hanúha, hanúxa
  • star: ahpérnih, apærnix
  • rain: paléna
  • water: síma
  • fog: fóka, háokà
  • sky: wákul
  • fire: pusáki
  • ash: áfua, axuá, ahuá
  • day: maóla, mólla
  • bay, inlet: ushipin
  • canoe: ánan



  1. I’m glad I found this blog and am following Darwin’s travels through you. This is very fascinating about language and not even being able to understand how some languages sounded even when you have the words on paper. My Latin teacher told me that no one knows how Latin sounds, as it was spoken by the Romans.

    I read a book called “Three Men of the Beagle” by Richard Lee Marks, which discusses Jemmy Button. Another book I liked about Darwin was “Darwin, His Daughter & Human Evolution” by Randal Keynes.

    It would be interesting to visit Tierra del Fuego. I’ve visited two spots that Darwin visited: Mount Wellington in Hobart, Tasmania (he walked up, we drove to the top) and Cape Point in South Africa.

    • Thanks Catherine – it must have been great to follow in Darwin’s footsteps. Whenever I traveled near glaciers in coastal Alaska, I always wondered if I was following a path walked by John Muir 100+ years earlier. There is something powerful about that feeling.

      There are so many great books out there about Darwin – thanks for these recommendations. I’ve not heard of the first one before, though I have a couple of others written about Jemmy Button (that I have not had a chance to read yet). If you are interested, these include “Savage: The Life and TImes of Jemmy Button” by Nick Hazlewood, and Evolutions Captain: The Story of the Kidnapping that Led to Charles Darwin’s Voyage Aboard the Beagle” by Peter Nichols. I am also looking forward to reading a piece of historical fiction by Sylvia Iparraguirre called “Tierra del Fuego” which tells the tale of Jemmy Button from the perspective of a third party.

  2. Wow, quite the word!

    The Beag

  3. This post touched me , my-Slovene language is spoken by only 2 million of us,wishing that it stays alive…..

    • I know – I can’t imagine what it must be like to be the last person (or last few people) to speak a language. It must be heartbreaking.

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