ulu

This word looks architectural, doesn’t it? Or, in a way, like an epergne. Or a post with a basin on either side. Or something, anyway, with a central stem and two cups on the side. But when you say it, the lips don’t show symmetry at all; they show a simple steady rounding all the way through, and the tongue, in its hiding place behind, manifests the symmetry: the tip starting behind the teeth, then flipping up to touch the palate, then dropping back, sort of like the motion with which you remove the skin from, say, a chicken breast or a dead seal.

Not that this word seems symmetrical to everyone. We in English tend to think of the spelling first, and if we have some linguistic knowledge or understanding, we may think in terms of phonemes or phonetics. But what if you think first in terms of syllables? Then you have two: [u] and [lu]. So if you spell this word with a syllabic orthography, you have two characters, one of which may be, say, a triangle pointing to the right, and the other of which may be, let us say, a fish hook lying on its side with the bottom of the hook to the right and the top of the stem to the left. Letter forms are, after all, arbitrary, as transparent as they may seem to the native speaker.

In either case, mind you, I would be able to point at a semicircle in a letter form and say, “Look! A resemblance!” Pure coincidence, but there it is. And what does a semicircle have to do with this word? Well, it’s like this. I have a pizza knife that has a semicircular blade and, attached to it at the diameter, a straight wooden handle. I tend to think of it as an ulu. This is not quite accurate, but there is a resemblance. And ulus are something I saw in pictures and/or videos in school long before I ever saw a pizza knife.

Why would I see ulus, or have seen them? Because I live in Canada and we are taught about the Inuit. For non-Canadians, the Inuit are the people formerly called Eskimos – calling them Eskimos is like calling the Deutsch Germans, or the Saami Laplanders, or calling Magyarország Hungary, or Zhongguo China: it’s using someone else’s term. Obviously we do that a lot, but it happens that we are increasingly tending towards calling people what they call themselves, and that is the case now in Canada with the Inuit.

Which reminds me: one Inu, two or more Inuit; one ulu, two or more uluit. I have been calling them ulus, going by English morphology, but since we now like to keep plural morphology on loan words where we can, we might as well call an ulu and another ulu together uluit.

So, oh, yes, what is it? A knife with a curved blade (now steel, formerly slate) and a handle made of wood, bone, or whatnot. The handle is, like with my pizza cutter, parallel with the tangent of the peak of the blade, but it is attached at one or two points, rather than at full width, as with mine. The curve of the blade is like the curve in your tongue, downward between tip and tail, when you say [ulu] (which does give a new meaning to “cutting remarks”). The ulu is used among the Inuit by women (at least traditionally) for skinning, cutting food, and trimming blocks of snow and ice for igloos (I won’t say igluit, though I could).

And what does the word taste like? I get halo and hula (as in hoop) and lulu and similar curved things, plus uhuru, the widely borrowed Swahili word for “freedom”. And perhaps yoohoo!

Oh, and the interior jungle portion of Malaysia. Which, as the OED tells me, has a word: ulu. We can assume that it’s not what the Inuit have in mind.

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One response to “ulu

  1. At first, it reminded me of Ubu.

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