Wednesday Word: That!

Today the Wednesday Word is “that.” Wait… isn’t that kind of simplistic?

Yeah, I know. What could we possibly say about the word “that”? Thanks for asking. Let me explain…

As a translator, language is what I work with. Of course you use language, as well. Difference is, I have to think about it all day long… every day. And more than one language. And that’s the catch.

What is language, anyway? Is language words? If you know what the words mean, do you know what the person is saying? And, if you translate the words, have you communicated the message?

Those aren’t trick questions, and the answer to each is an emphatic “No!”

Here’s an example from a translation session the other day. One of my native-speaker translation committee guys said to me, “Ahin.” (pronounced: ah HEEN). Get it? Oh yeah, that’s right. You don’t know Palawano. Okay, fair enough. I’ll tell you. Ahin is a very colloquialized version of atin or yatin which means “that.”

So… now do you get what he was saying to me? See? Simply knowing the meaning of the word doesn’t help. This is especially true of words like “this, that, here, there, you, me,” where the whole context of who is speaking (and where) is part of the meaning. Think about it. If I say “I,” I mean me but if you say “me,” you mean you… got it? Or if I say “here,” I mean Palawan (where I am right now). But if you say “here,” you mean wherever it is you are. But if you travel and say the word again, it will change… and refer to the place where you are when you say it.

So a big part of a word’s meaning is in the situation in which the word was uttered.

Alright, then. I’ll tell you the situation. I had a bit of translated text up on the monitor and the guys were looking at it. I had the word et (pronounced: uht) highlighted for their attention. This is one of our sort of locative/preposition type words. Sometimes this word goes in front of a certain type of pronoun, sometimes not. Even after nearly 30 years with this language, I’m not always sure. (Thankfully, the Palawano guys are sure.)

Okay, so I pointed to the word et on the screen. I asked the guys, “Do we need this et here or not? Should we leave it or remove it?”

And Abil spoke up first and said, “Ahin.”

That’s right. You learned this word. It means “that.” So Abil said, “That.” So you know the word, and you know the situation in which he said it. But what did he mean? Which of the two options I gave was “that”? What was he telling me to do?

You see, language is much more than just words. It is even more than just words used in context. Language often carries meanings in very arbitrary ways… according to rules which are not universal, but which the speaker and hearer must both know. Of course, early on, I didn’t know these rules for Palawano! Even as I learned the words, I often did not understand.

So as we translate anything, it’s not just words. It’s a message. And we need to make sure it comes through loud and clear.

P.S. Okay, here’s the answer to the ahin question. Abil meant, “Leave it like that.” or “That is the way it should be.” So he was saying, “Option 1… leave it there.”

So by “that,” he meant, “Like that. The way it is as I can see it.” Had he wanted me to delete it, he would have said, “Even if you delete it, Maman.” Again, those words don’t quite give the full intent, unless you know the “rules.” You see, it’s not polite for him to tell me (his “uncle” or maman) anything in a direct imperative. To say, “Remove it,” would be disrepectful. So he would have softened it by adding “even if.” But he doesn’t really mean, “It’s okay if you leave it, but even if you remove it, that’s okay.” He would have politely saying, “Remove it, Uncle Bill.”

And that’s just little words like et. Imagine grappling with the big stuff…

So how about you? When have you misunderstood something even though you knew what each and every word meant?


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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4 Responses to Wednesday Word: That!

  1. Kathryn says:

    Great post! I enjoyed it very much.

  2. theharrylucas says:

    great stuff, heres my sub.

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