I had an entire conversation with Mong Ey the other day where I couldn’t understand why she was crying and shaking. We talked for nearly an hour; I understood all that she was saying. I understood what had literally happened. But I didn’t understand why it had brought her to tears. I had no idea what the underlying meanings were of the words she was saying.
It showed me how deep language runs and how far we have to go. You can understand the words, but what are the connotations? There are things we say that imply much deeper meanings: we say that she’s “having a hard time” or that so and so are “sleeping together.” They imply something beyond the literal meaning. So as I’m sitting here, understanding her explanation literally, but absolutely baffled at what I was so clearly missing. And realizing that we will always be studying language in some way, shape, or form.
You also never really think about sound effects being a part of your language. We say “achoo” for a sneeze, “boo” for a scare, and “moo” for a cow; we agree with someone or confirm our attention by saying “mmm hmm” in the middle of someone’s sentence.
Don’t these seem universal?
After observing our community for awhile and studying language for what feels like an eternity, we are starting to see that they aren’t universal at all.
I even started asking my New Zealand friend: What sound would you say that a cow makes? What would you say if you were standing behind a door to scare someone?
Turns out New Zealand still speaks English, and these seem to translate pretty similarly.
But we have learned that the sound each animal makes is different in Burmese. We have learned that to agree in Karen you would say “ugh-ugh”–a grunt, if you will. It’s low, and feels really awkward to imitate. But if we say “mmm hmmm”, they will pause to see what you are going to interject. And somehow they grunt smoothly, which I can’t seem to do yet. Those low, guttural sounds are hard enough for me to make at all, and they never come out in nonchalant agreement.
Or to scare someone? For the Burmese kids in the neighborhood, it’s “waaahhh.” They’ll stand behind a door and jump out shouting “WAAAHH!” And when I referred to “boo,” I got a blank stare.
It’s so funny, isn’t it? Language runs so deep. It is so engrained into us, in our implications and interjections and our sound effects. It’s in our culture and our emotions.
And from the looks of things, Stephen & I will always be learning 🙂