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Monday, August 29, 2005

Instead of Words

Some years ago, I met a linguist in Sarawak, Malaysia. Originally he was from Australia, but later as adult he was adopted by a Malaysian tribe (it might have been the Penan tribe, though I don’t know for sure). He introduced me to one linguist theory which breaks up everything we say or write into experiential, textual, and interpersonal communication. For example, when I say “Thank you”, then this is purely interpersonal – it doesn’t carry any specific information but a reassurance of a relationship between two persons (just as the question “How are you doing?”).

Mind you, I’m no expert linguist, not even an amateur linguist. But what I found fascinating was his description of his family and the tribe where he lived. He said they never say “thanks” or “please” – they don’t have words for this – because they are highly dependent on each other and share everything in the first place.

“What is the purpose of saying ’thanks’ when someone passes the salt to you on the breakfast table? It is to confirm the status of the relationship.” he said. “But why would a relationship need to be confirmed? Only when it is brittle does it need to be confirmed on a regular basis.” (I’m paraphrasing our conversation here as I do not remember it word by word. I well remember its essence.)
In their tribe, there was no need for confirmation; they relied on each other so heavily – for bringing food, etc. – that any other alternative might even be deadly.

The linguist also told me his tribe does not have words for “I’m sorry.” (Whatever you could do wrong would hurt anybody anyway, including you, as they were very close to each other.) Neither do they have direct translations for “hello” and “good bye”. Instead of “hello”, they would sometimes say “Where are you going?”

He told me he was walking a road every morning, and people meeting him always asked him “Where are you going?” He was wondering: “Quite strange, they should know by now where I’m going, I’m walking this road every day!” (And I’m sure when he answered their question verbatim, his words must have sounded quite strange to them, too.)

He mentioned one incidence in which he was gone from the tribe for months. Upon his return, his father met him at the airport but showed little emotion on the surface, and didn’t greet him in any special way. But, the linguist told me, he knew his father was still in an emotional state at this time. And later on, in the wood house where his mother was working sitting on the floor, she barely looked up when he entered the room, and didn’t say a word.

Now why wouldn’t his parents greet him more openly and verbose? In their mind, their son wasn’t gone on a long trip – because they felt so close to him all the time. They did not greet someone who they didn’t think was away in the first place.

The linguist told me one more thing, about marriage. He said there’s no such concept as “love” in his tribe. Couples will marry. But they will not say “I love you”. It would be unnecessary in terms of interpersonal confirmation of a relationship. The married couple will be loyal to each other for the rest of their lives – in this tribe, they depend on each other, and no one could even imagine an alternative to this bonding.

I don’t think that after I met this man, I was ever the same again – not when it comes to certain simple words. Nowadays when I think gratefulness would be appropriate, I think back to our conversation, and how easy it is to just say “thanks.” But how hard it is to act instead of talk; to be loyal in what you do, instead of reaffirming with words. How hard it is to change your way of living, to adjust your thinking, instead of saying “I’m sorry.” How hard it is to carry someone in your mind instead of saying “hello” and “good bye.” How hard it is to stick to someone for the rest of your life instead of uttering the words “I love you.” And yet, how much more sincere and good-hearted it might be.


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