How do you say “dinosaur” in Zulu?

BBC Future muses over the ways in which language can limit scientific research – when you don’t have the words for a concept:

For Zulu-speaking South African schoolchildren working with science communicator Sibusiso Biyela, an added challenge has been not just grasping the concept in English, but translating it back into Zulu, which doesn’t have words for such terms. While Zulu, or isiZulu as it is called in South Africa, is spoken by almost 12 million people, it lacks the words for communicating many scientific concepts.

Ilahle (“coal”), suggested one girl. It makes sense, since coal is a fossil fuel. A boy came up with a version of amathambo amadala atholakala emhlabathini (“old bones found in the ground”). This translation is intuitive but imperfect, as plants can be fossils as well.

Ultimately, Biyela believes, the actual words used aren’t the most important things. “The impact has not been the words themselves, it’s been the formula to come up with the words,” he says. Earlier this year he documented the formula he developed for Zulu in a powerful article for The Open Notebook, which elicited solidarity around the world from people facing similar issues (and also inspired this article).

The formula is crucial for developing Zulu terms for concepts that English speakers often take for granted, from “immune system” to “dinosaur”. This process creates an opportunity to correct some of the biases and errors embedded in the English terms. As Biyela points out, “dinosaur” is a misnomer, as it derives from the Greek word for “terrible lizard”. He opted for isilwane sasemandulo (“ancient animal”) instead.

In some cases, however, neologisms can be perfectly poetic compared to their English equivalents. The clinical-sounding “immune system” has a more descriptive variant in Zulu: amasosha omzimba, which translates as “bodily soldiers”. This exemplifies how healthcare workers around the world explain a condition in lay terms that will be understood locally.

In the Amazonian language Yudja, spoken by fewer than a thousand people, one strategy is to borrow words from Brazilian Portuguese, tweaking them to make them sound more Yudja. Yudja speakers often also reference the function of the object, such as axi saasaka, (“fire that flashes”) for “flashlight”, or the sound it makes, as in kiriri, which captures the sound of a zipper for the word “backpack”.

As University of York psycholinguist Asifa Majid and her colleagues have found, many European languages are very limited in describing smellsincluding terms like hʉ̌ʉn and měn hʉ̌ʉn (associated with oil for frying), sàap (for the odour of cockroaches), and hɔ̌ɔm grùn (for warm foods like bread fresh out of the oven).