Where Are The Bats? – Blanket!

Language Learning…
It never stops. Even after 25 years of working with Palawanos and being deeply involved in their language doing translation and linguistic analysis, we keep learning new things. Here are a few interesting examples I thought you might enjoy.

Many people think of language as words. You learn the “new words,” plug ’em in where the old (English, etc.) words would have gone, and wala! You are speaking Palawano.

The trouble is, that’s not how languages work.

For one thing, because of culture and many other reasons, a Palawano would not even try to “say the same thing” as what would have been appropriate to say in English in a similar situation. And secondly, even when communicating the same basic concept, that concept is normally expressed in a different way. Often in a very different way. This, of course, is one reason why language learning and translation is so difficult and takes so long! If it were simply a matter of plugging in new words, it would go much faster.

And of course jokes and teasing are especially tricky. These are deep forms of language with subtle patterns and timing which are required in order for the words to be funny, and to not be offensive.

Okay, some fun example from real conversations…

Where are the Bats?
Or, “which are the bats,” to be more exact (the Palawano word embe can mean either ‘where’ or ‘which.’) When might you say that in English? (probably never, you say… bats! ew!) But I’ll set the scene for you: you are in a place where there are some bats, and also some other critters mingled in that look like bats. If you were zoologically challenged, and could not tell them apart, you might ask, “Which are the bats?” There, you see? You could say it, given the right circumstance, albeit one in which you are unlikely to find yourself.

But when might a Palawano say it? One day, Abil, our neighbor and one of the main community leaders here was sitting on my porch visiting. He was in the process of building a new house. He described how, the day before, he had removed some of the roofing from his old house, in order to put it on his new home. And then it started POURING rain. Great timing. This was sort of the Palawano version of “wash your car, and it will rain,” I think.

So he said, “Kuan ko, ‘Embey kabeg?!’ haha,” (lit. “I said, ‘Which are the fruit bats?!’ haha.”)

He then started to calmly continue the conversation.

But I, in my subtle way, said, “WHOA!!! Hold on. What was that thing about the ‘fruit bats’?!!!”

He laughed and explained. When the rain started pouring in all the leaky spots, everyone in his household was running around trying to find a dry spot to stand. Some place sheltered by a good part of the roof. Just like fruit bats hang under a leaf, or under the eave of a house at night to be sheltered from the weather.

So the whole thing was what you might call an implied analogy. There were no bats present, but only people acting like bats. But he didn’t explicitly call anyone a bat. He merely implied it.

So what he meant was something like, “We were all just like bats seeking a sheltered place to hang.” But what he actually said was, “Which are the fruit bats?”

You could translate the words of the English and say, “Ginsan kay, sian lak menge kabeg na epemegtulos et pesirungan in pekiit.” (lit. “We were all just like bats seeking a sheltered place to hang.”) But in Palawano that would be overstating the obvious and would have little impact. It would not be funny at all. But if you say instead, “Embey kabeg?” and you have people rolling in the aisles (Well, if they had aisles, of course, which they don’t. But you get the idea.)

I wondered if this was pattern. Could I use the “Which is/are the _____ ?” as a frame in other situations. So I tried it out. A few days later I saw someone picking little burrs out of the legs of a pair of pants, kind of like a monkey picks lice, or will try to pick on anything you give it. So I said, “Embey amo?” (“Which is the monkey?”) and guess what? It worked, and got quite a laugh.

So yes, languages do follow patterns… but they don’t march to the beat of another language’s drummer.

Another thing we’ve often noticed is how a Palawano joke may be subtly stated, or responded to as a snappy come-back, with a single word. In English, we have our one-liners. Palawanos have their one-WORDers!

For example, if a group of people is served a bunch of bananas to share and each one is twisting one off the stalk, someone might say, “Amo!!” (“Monkey!”) This means, “You/we are all just like monkeys!” and it is considered funny. If you actually say the whole thing and explicitly call everyone monkeys, it would be much less funny, and perhaps even insulting. But in English, we would rarely say just one word, or even a single sentence, in such a context.

Recently one of my translation helpers was telling a story of his first trip to Manila. We had served him coffee in a plastic mug. We had no idea, but he had never known of a hot drink to be served in a plastic cup, so he assumed it was a cold drink and slugged a big gulp into his mouth, and yikes! It was hot! So he panicked. He was unable to spit it out, being in a house in the city. (Palawano houses with slat floors are much more conducive to spitting!) So he quickly covered his cup with his other hand so no one would see, and he spit the coffee back into his cup. Poor guy. He was laughing about it now, though.

As soon as he said that, someone who was listening to the story laughed and said, “Memulek!” (“Toddler!”) Again, haiku has nothing on Palawano for minimalism! Just the word “toddler” communicated something like, “Spitting back into your cup is just like a toddler learning to drink from a cup, haha.”

The one that really got me happened a few days ago. Some guys were working on the back part of our house. When the pulled the white corrugated metalplas roofing sheets from under the house, some of them were muddy. So I asked them to please wash them off before installing them on the roof. Then I jokingly added, “And when you’ve washed them, please wring them out really good.” Of course, you can’t wring a stiff 3’x’8′ sheet of roofing. I was joking and they are used to that now, after 28 years of putting up with me. So they laughed, knowing I was kidding. But then Arlyn, one of Donna’s language helpers who was standing by, chuckled and said, “Blanket!”

“Blanket!” Get it? Funniest joke you’ve heard in a while, huh?!

What might you have said if I jokingly asked you to “wring out” large rigid sheets of roofing? Maybe something like, “You can’t wring these, you ditz!” Or, dripping with irony, “Yeah right. Just like laundering blankets,” or some such put-down.

But imagine simply saying, “Blanket!” Merely translating that literally into English would not fly any more than it would be funny to translate one of the appropriate English comebacks word-for-word into Palawano.

Well, that’s all for today.

Blanket! I mean, it’s bed time for me.


About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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