Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Top of the Ant Hill

Acholi refer to politicians with a figurative term wibye meaning 'top of the ant hill' because like this precarious point on the hill, politicians and their elevated seats of power may crumble and slide down at any moment.   Even if ant hills are not part of your typical landscape, the lack of confidence or lack of trust in leaders that this image relates has relevance for many cultures.

So what can words, phrases, grammatical constructions tell us about a culture?  Not always a lot on their own.  Sometimes they are vestigial, reminders of the roots of a language.  There are many of these for English connecting it back to French or German.  For some American vernaculars, elements of West African languages such as Wolof can still be heard which were blended in centuries ago.

It is important to go slowly when learning a new language.  Remain skeptical, never assuming when something is familiar that you have recognized a true similarity because, to borrow roughly from Magritte, a chair isn't always a chair.  For me, the best evidence that complex concepts cannot be translated with equivalency is that even concrete objects such as 'bottle' or 'chair' which one might assume have direct translations are not always equivalent between languages.  A chair is not always a chair from one language to the next.  It depends on what your language considers chair-ness to be.  It depends on how we conceptualize categories or how we understand membership for those categories.  (I will be writing much more about categories because they are an important cognitive activity.) 

An example from basic the greetings in Acholi illustrates an overlap between an instance where simple translation equivalency might be assumed, but complex cultural concepts are also at work.  (It is these more complex concepts, attitudes and values that interest me, and where I believe linguistic investigation offers a glimpse of insight.) So the simple example: among family or close acquaintances in the morning you might greet each other with:
You slept well?
I slept well.
This seems very natural.  Many languages use this pattern.  However, the Acholi region where it is used has just emerged from several years of war.  The sentiment is in fact literal as in, 'was your sleep disturbed,' and also implying without asking the more sinister, the unsaid. 'Did anyone break into your home and was anyone hurt or killed?  In this way, 'you slept well,' is not a direct translation from the English or any other language.  It has an experiential weight carried in the tone, amassed over years.  This description was given to me by someone young, so I wonder if his grandparents knew another meaning.  These early impressions are the threads I will follow with further study and research.  How prevalent is this attitude?  What is the speed of language change in the highly oral culture here in LuoLand?  How can my methodology capture and convey these dimensions?

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