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Category: sociolinguistics

Careful who you climb a tree near: Respect and taboo in Vanuatu

Careful who you climb a tree near: Respect and taboo in Vanuatu

One humid afternoon, during breadfruit season in North Ambrym, my language teacher, Isaiah, and I were on the lookout for some ripe breadfruit to roast for lunch. Our path led past his nephew, George’s, house. Isaiah saw some ripe breadfruit in the tree next to where George was sitting on his veranda. Isaiah wanted to get the breadfruit, but said that because George was there, he couldn’t, and we would have to find some others instead. I asked if it was George’s breadfruit tree, and that’s why he didn’t want to take it when George was around. Isaiah said no; rather, the problem was if we went up the tree when George was underneath, then he would have to pay a small fine to George. Over a lunch of roasted and pounded breadfruit called wuwu, Isaiah explained further. It was to do with respect and taboo.

Respect in language takes many forms. There is the tu/vous distinction in French, where tu is the informal form of ‘you (singular)’ and is used with friends and those younger than you, whereas vous ‘you (plural)’ is formal and is used with those elder or senior than you and for people you don’t know. Similar distinctions are found with the German du/Sie. English doesn’t have a grammatical distinction in politeness like this, but uses different sentence structures to express politeness: compare pass me the salt please with could you please pass me the salt, or the even more polite would you be so kind as to pass me the salt please.

Now let’s get back to eating that heavy sticky coconut-cream-slathered wuwu with Isaiah. He told me that you must respect certain members of your extended family by showing physical politeness. Respect is translated as tengnean in the language of North Ambrym. The people who you must respect are your taboo family, described by the verb gorrne. Respect for your taboo family on Ambrym is realised in different ways – through physical restrictions and through language. The family members who command the most respect are your sister’s son or your husband’s brother.

The physical restrictions with a taboo relative include:

  • You can’t eat in front of them
  • You can’t joke with them
  • You can’t climb over them, or be physically higher than them
  • You can’t sleep in front of them
  • You can’t enter their house

But what about restrictions on language? The normal translation of ‘hello’ in North Ambrym would be neng le, which literally means ‘you there’, using neng, the singular form of ‘you’. But you are not allowed to say this to your taboo relatives. Instead, you must say gōmōro le using the dual form of ‘you’, meaning ‘you two there’, even though you are addressing one person. This is similar to French or German mentioned earlier. However, North Ambrym, like many Oceanic languages, not only has singular and dual, but also paucal, meaning ‘a few’, and plural pronouns. Of these possibilities, the dual is used for respect, not the plural as in French or German.

Respect is not confined to pronouns such as ‘you’; people also have to avoid using certain words in front of their taboo relatives. For example, if your sister’s son came, and you invited him to sit down and have some food, you would have to avoid certain verbs, such as taa ‘sit’ or ngene ‘eat’. You would use lingi ‘put’ instead of ‘sit’ and tewene ‘make’ instead of ‘eat’ so the whole sentence would be rephrased as ‘you-two come and put your-dual-self here and make the food’.

You must also avoid certain words concerning body parts, specifically words relating to parts of the head. Normally when talking about body parts in North Ambrym you would use a bound noun – a type of noun which specifies who owns the body part – so the word for ‘tooth’ would be lowo-n ‘his/her tooth’, lowo-m ‘your tooth’, or lowo-ng ‘my tooth’. The end of the noun (-n/-m/-ng in this example) indicates whose tooth it is. But these words are not allowed when talking in front of your taboo relatives. Instead, you could use a free form of the noun, such as leo ‘tooth’.

Another avoidance strategy is to change a verb to a noun using a special nominalising prefix a- that appears on the beginning of the word and turns it into a noun. The verb itself is also reduplicated. For example, the verb ta ‘cut’ can be turned into a noun atata ‘tooth’ (literally ‘thing for cutting’).

Finally, a more idiomatic expression could be used; in this case, tooth is replaced by which literally translates as ‘limpet shell (traditionally used as a vegetable grater)’ or teye ‘clam shell/axe’ as a way of avoiding the bound form for ‘tooth’.

Here’s a handy table to help you get your head (or just head!) around avoiding the bound forms.

Bound Free Nominalisation Idiomatic
rralnye-n ‘his, her ear’ teleng ‘ear’ arorongta ‘thing for listening, headphones’ harrlengleng ‘listening’
lowon ‘his, her tooth’ leo ‘tooth’ atata ‘thing for cutting’ ‘limpet shell (used as a grater)’

teye ‘clam shell, axe’

metan ‘his, her eye’  marr ‘eye’ ateter ‘thing for seeing, glasses’ hal ‘road, path’

glas ‘glasses’

guhun ‘his, her nose’  kuu ‘nose’ akunuknuu ‘thing for smelling’
woulun ‘his, her hair’ wovyul ‘hair’ ōrr ge mre ‘place which is above’

As time passes, so do traditions, and the older generations mourn the loss of respecting their taboo relatives. They complain that younger generations now joke with their taboo relatives or put their arms around them. This art of speaking is being lost and the physical taboos are being eroded. However, this change is not new and has been going on for several generations. Some of the more extreme forms of respect are almost out of living memory. One of the village elders, Ephraim, recounted a memory of seeing how his grandmother, Mataran, displayed respect when returning from the garden, with her vegetables one day. When she approached her home, she saw that one of her husband’s brothers was there. She came close, then crawled the rest of the way past her husband’s brother with her basket of vegetables over her shoulder, until she was in her doorway before standing up again.

So the next time you are in Vanuatu, take care when climbing trees and make sure you know which of your relatives are nearby!

A “let’s circle back” guy

A “let’s circle back” guy

As everyone knows by now, for the foreseeable future we must all stay at home as much as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the burden on our health services – which has already been substantial, and will soon be enormous even in the best possible scenario.

This shift in the way we operate as a society will have a wide range of effects on our lives, which are already being noticed. Some of these were the kind of thing you might have thought of in advance – but others less so. For example, soon after the advice to work from home really started to bite in the US, a substantial thread developed on Twitter, all started off by the following tweet:

The thousands of responses that appeared within a few hours of this tweet shows how deeply it resonated: many people must have been through their own version of the same surprising experience, some of them presumably in the last few days. But what happened here, and why was it so surprising? And why, as a linguist, am I sitting at home and writing a blog post about it now?

This single tweet, which people found so easy to identify with, in fact brings together a number of issues that linguists are interested in. For one thing, it works as a clear illustration of a point that people intuitively appreciate, but which has endless ramifications: the language you use is never just an instrument for communicating your thoughts, but is also taken to say something important about your identity, whether you intend it to or not. If a guy uses the expression “let’s circle back”, meaning to return to an issue later, that makes him a “let’s circle back” guy – that is, a particular kind of person. In a jokey way, the tweeter is implying that she already had a mental category of ‘the kind of person who would say things like that’, and she takes it for granted that we do too. In this case, the surprise for Laura Norkin was in suddenly discovering that her own husband belonged in that pre-existing category: the way she tells it, hearing him use a specific turn of phrase counted as finding out important new information about who he is as a person, which she was not necessarily best pleased about.

Making a linguistic choice: a bilingual road sign in Wales

Since the mid-twentieth century, the field of sociolinguistics has drawn attention to the fact that this kind of thing is going on everywhere in language. Consciously or unconsciously, people are making linguistic choices all the time – whether that means choosing between two totally different languages, between two different expressions with the same meaning (do you circle back to something or just return to it?), or between two very slightly different pronunciations of the same word. Any of these choices might turn out to ‘say something’ about how you see yourself – or how other people see you. And the social meanings and values assigned to the different choices are likely to change over time: so understanding what is going on with one person’s use of language really requires you to understand what is going on right across the community, which is like an ecosystem full of co-existing language diversity. How do linguistic developments, and the social responses to them, propagate and interact in this ecosystem? That’s something that researchers work hard to find out.

The tweet also picks up on the importance of the situational context for the way people use language. Laura Norkin had never heard her husband use the offending expression before because it belongs to a particular register – meaning a variety of language which is characteristic of a particular sphere of activity. Circling back is characteristic of ‘full work mode’, something which had never previously needed to surface in the domestic setting.

Why do registers exist? Partly it must be to do with the fact that different people know different things: for example, lawyers can expect to be able to use technical legal terminology with their colleagues, but not with their clients, even if they are talking about all the same issues – because behind the terminology there lies a wealth of specialist knowledge. Similarly, anyone would modify their language when talking to a five-year-old as opposed to a fifty-year-old.

But this cannot be the whole story: it doesn’t help you to explain the difference between returning and circling back. Should we think of the business/marketing/management world, where terms like circling back are stereotypically used, as a mini community within the community, with its own ideas of what counts as normal linguistic practice? Or is everyone involved giving a signal that they take on a new, businesslike identity when they turn up to the office – even if these days that doesn’t involve leaving the house? Again, working out the relationship between the language aspect and the social aspect here makes an interesting challenge for linguistics.

The medical profession is well known for having its own technical register

But this was not just an anecdote about how unusual it is to be at home and yet hear terms that usually turn up at work. We can tell that “let’s circle back”, just like other commonly mocked corporate expressions such as “blue-sky thinking” or “push the envelope”, is something we are expected to dislike – but why? The existence of different registers is not generally thought of as a bad thing in itself. You could give the answer that this expression is overused, a cliché, and thus sounds ugly. But really, things must be the other way round: English abounds in commonly used expressions, and only the ones that ‘sound ugly’ get labelled as overused clichés. And there is nothing inherently worse about circle back than about re-turn – in fact, when you think about it, they are just minor variations on the same metaphor.

So what is really going on here? The popular reaction to circle back, and other things of that kind, seems to involve lots of factors at once. The expression is new enough that people still notice it; but it is not unusual enough to sound novel or imaginative. It is currently restricted to a particular kind of professional setting that most people never find themselves in; but it does not refer to a complex or specific enough concept to ‘deserve’ to exist as a technical term. And we do not tend to worry too much about making fun of the linguistic habits of people who have a relatively privileged position in society: certainly, teasing your husband by outing him as a “let’s circle back” guy is not really going to do him any harm.

Spelling it out like this helps to suggest just how much information we are factoring in whenever we react to the linguistic behaviour of the people around us – and this is something we do all the time, mostly without even noticing. We are social beings, and cannot help looking for the social message in the things people say, as well as the literal message: establishing this fact, and working out how to investigate it scientifically, has been one of the great overarching projects of modern linguistics. Right now, for everyone’s benefit, we need to learn how to be less sociable than ever. But as the tweet above suggests, people’s inbuilt sensitivity to language as a social code is not going to change any time soon.