It’s always nice to have a posse keeping an eye out for stray information on your pet topic of fascination. So it was with great delight that I recently opened an email message from Marissa Smith, a friend of mine who has reliably given moral support and often physical backup for wolverine work in Mongolia, to find a 400+ page Manchu-to-English dictionary and a rundown of all the mustelid words she’d found in perusing that dictionary. Her detective work bridged a gap that I’ve been trying to fill for the past several years, ever since a discussion with a historian working on the dynamics of the fur trade during the Qing Dynasty in China. The Qing, who ruled China (and Mongolia) from 1636 to 1911 and were notably interested in cultural and environmental conservation, were Manchu, and many of their records were kept in Manchu, which makes the language relevant to understanding wildlife management and environmental protection during that era. I asked this scholar whether he’d run across any accounts of wolverine pelts in his research, or whether he could even tell me the Manchu word for wolverine. He had no idea. The best he could do was offer the fact that there were two descriptors of otters: a relatively well behaved “river otter,” and a “mountain otter” that had a reputation for being crazy and aggressive. At the time, I speculated that maybe the mountain otters were actually wolverines (he was not impressed with this hypothesis).

Finally, after several years of wondering about this – and remaining attached to my mountain otter idea – I can report, thanks to Marissa, that the Manchu word for wolverine is ongnika. The stem ong- appears to relate to being rude, which appears to be related to being from the countryside, since ong– is the root of a word that means pasture. This is in keeping with many other terms for wolverine which reference some idea of being rude, boorish, or uncultured.

Ongnika and related words, from “A Comprehensive Manchu-English Dictionary,” Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 85, by Jerry Norman, 2013

The –nika portion of the word is more obscure. Both ni and ka are, according to a Manchu grammar from the 19th century, grammatical suffixes, but ni is used to form the genitive noun case, and ka seems to be used as part of a compound verb form indicating recent past tense. It’s unlikely that these two suffixes would be used together. The other option is to take nika as a whole, in which case, according to this particular dictionary, it means “Chinese.” This leaves us with the perplexing possibility that the Manchu word for wolverine refers to a rude or rural Chinese person. I really hope not, because while it would open some very interesting perspectives on perceptions of wolverines, I’d prefer not to have my species embroiled in some kind of stereotype-slinging feud between the Manchus and the Chinese. There may be another explanation, and my exposure to Manchu grammar is about a week old at this point, so this is all off-the-cuff. If anyone has any greater expertise, please weigh in.

At some point I’d like to compile a list of all the terms for wolverine from Siberian languages, as I tried to do for North American languages some years ago, so if anyone has any information on this from any of the other Siberian/Turkic/Tungusic languages, let me know.

In the meantime, though, as I searched around for information on Manchu grammar, I was surprised to learn that Manchu has only about ten living native speakers. It’s one of those languages that we consider highly endangered. On the long list of things that are at risk in this world, languages get consideration by only a limited number of people, most of them either speakers of those languages, or linguists. I’d like to make a quick case here that you too, as someone concerned about wildlife, should care about the loss of indigenous languages. As was apparent as I pored over the dictionary, a language contains in its structure and vocabulary a wealth of knowledge and understanding about the environment, about how to survive in that environment, and about how people were supposed to orient towards and interact with that environment. Below are some examples of terms specific to life in the wolverine’s habitat, which I found as I looked up the words for “mountain,” “snow,” and “ski.” They tell us something about the specificity of Manchu environmental knowledge (a term just for the forests that grow on north-facing slopes, for example, or the multitude of terms for types of snow and snow crust, or the wealth of mustelid terms), technologies that they created for exploring and navigating that environment (hiking boots, crampons, skis, snowshoes), approaches that people should take to environmental conditions (a special term for an adept skier, or the fact that “risking one’s life” is synonymous with “going out in a snowstorm”), and some insights on worldview (the fact that the word for “male otter” is the same as the word for fame, or the fact that the death of an emperor was referred to, literally, as a mountain collapsing).

The large number of words related to mustelids, and specifically to sable, illustrates the importance of fur within the Manchu world, an importance which extended to the management of the empire, since tribute was frequently paid in sable pelts. I didn’t find any clarification on the river otter vs. mountain otter distinction, but there were a charming number of terms for different age classes of both otters and badgers, as well as a number of terms related to hunting and trapping techniques, the handling of pelts, and the ways mustelid fur was used on garments. The only other animal with the same degree of related terminology as mustelids, in this dictionary anyway, is the tiger. The fact that a bunch of weasels assume the same linguistic status as the mighty tiger is a testament to the role of mustelids within the Manchu world.

Words related to wolverine habitat (plus a caution on how not to behave around sleeping tigers….):

kulkuri suru: a white horse good in mountain terrain

olongdo: long boots used for mountain climbing

sa: 1. silk gauze, tulle; cf. cece; 2. a dense forest on the north side of a mountain;

saban: a piece of leather with an attached iron cleat (tied to boots or shoes to assist in mountain climbing or walking on ice)

senggin: 1. forehead; 2. the place where the foot of a mountain and a river meet;

urimbi: (-he) 1. to collapse (said of a mountain or hill); 2. to die (said of the Emperor)

alin: mountain

farsambi: to risk one’s life, to act carelessly, to brave (rain, snow)

kordon: a person good on skis or snowshoes

mere nimanggi: snow that has frozen into small beads the size of a grain of buckwheat

nimanggi: snow

nimari yanggaJi: a small bird with snow-white feathers – when it sings it is supposed to snow

sulhumbi: to become soft and mushy, to be soft (said of earth or snow)

suntaha: snowshoe, ski

undan: spring snow that has frozen on the surface and for which snowshoes are required

undaSambi: to hunt on frozen spring snow

ungkan: frozen snow on the top of grass

hujimbi: 1. to rouse a recumbent tiger by shouting

Mustelid terms:

algin: 1. fame; 2. the male otter

haihūn: a name for the otter

haihū: 1. soft; 2. staggering, weaving from side to side

imseke: the young of the otter

lekerhi: 1. Latax lutris: sea otter; 2. otter skin

mederi dorgon: sea otter; cf. lekerhi [author’s note: lit. “sea badger.”]

uki: a female otter

aihii: female sable

baltaha: the hair under the chin of a sable

cakiri: 1. half-cooked, half-done; 2. sable or fox pelts speckled with white hair

desihi: a kind of trap attached to a tree over a stream, used to catch sable and various other small animals

gathiiwa: a jacket made of weasel or sable fur

gina: 1. a trap for sable and squirrels, a deadfall; 2. sheepskin decorated with gold leaf

hara: 1. a short autumn coat of sable or lynx;

hayahan dahii: a court garment trimmed with sable, lynx, or black fox

kiyamnan mahatun: an ancient-style hat adorned with golden cicadas and sable tails

lunggu: a male sable

muhi: 1. a sable (or other animal’s) tail attached to the front of a fur jacket below the lapel

sahalca: pelt of a black sable

seke: 1. Martes zibellina: sable; 2. sable pelt seke furdehe: sable jacket

ufuhu wehe: pumice: a very porous stone found in streams and that can be used for dressing sable hides

ulbimbi: to jump from branch to branch (said of squirrels, sable, etc.)

abadan: an old badger

dorgon: Meles meles: badger

huren: 1. the ridge of the nose; 2. a hole on a stove near the cooking pot where a light (hiyabun) is placed; 3. a badger trap

indahfin manggisu: a name for the badger

manggisu: badger

nanggu: a trap for badger and raccoon-dogs

ulgiyan manggisu: a name for the badger

yandaci: a young badger

sanggiyan ulhu: ermine

sanyan ulhu: Mustela erminea: ermine, stoat

ulhu: 1. squirrel, ermine; 2. ermine pelt

ulhu alban: tax on ermine pelts

ayan jelken: a species of weasel

jelken: Mustela sibirica: Siberian weasel

kurene: weasel

silihi: a name for the weasel

solohi: Mustela sibirica: weasel

suwayan solobi: weasel [author’s note: “suwayan” means “yellow”]

ayan barsa: beech marten

harsa: Martes fiavigula: yellow-throated marten