Wednesday Word: Nothing

Welcome to those searching for “Nothing”! If you like this post about “nothing,” you might enjoy some of this blog’s other posts about “something” else…

Well, okay.

This week’s Wednesday word is not “nothing.” But I want to point out a fallacy in the thinking of many language learners: Sometimes you should not say anything.

So often, people think that a language learner’s mantra should be, “How do you say ___ in your language?” Sounds good, doesn’t it? So what’s wrong with that?

Actually, a better question would be, “Would they say ___ in the first place?”

When people have visited us where we lived with the Palawanos, they almost always asked us, “How do you say ‘Good Morning!’ in Palawano?”

The trouble is, “good morning” is menungang mesubo , but NO ONE SAYS THAT. When I explained this to our visitors, they would look shocked and stammer, “Okay, um, what should I say, then, you know, to say hello or greet someone?”

Better question! “What is the proper thing to say in situation x?”

They never liked my answer, though. You see, usually Palawanos say nothing in greeting. No equivalent of “hello.” They don’t ask how you are doing, what’s up or what’s goin’ down. Don’t get me wrong. They are not unfriendly, they just do not show it with our familiar formulaic expressions.

If you pass by a Palawano’s house on your way out of the village, he will call out, “Where are you going?” If you’re headed into the village, he will ask, “Where did you come from?” That might seem a little nosy to some of us, but it’s the closest they come to what we could consider a proper greeting. And actually, it’s not overly inquisitive. The expected answer is simply, Kara (“No place.”) And before you mumble about how meaningless or dishonest that is, think about our perfunctory “How-are-you-fine” exchanges.

So, it’s better to find out what (if anything!) is said in a situation and learn that.

Here’s another example which shows how well-intentioned friendliness can go awry. I’ve been asked, “How do I say, ‘Oh, what a beautiful baby!’ to Nunsing when I see her and her child?”

How sweet. And how terrible it would be to translate and utter those words! In some cultures, to compliment a baby is like shouting to the evil spirits, “Hey! Here’s a juicy pretty one. Come eat it!” The mother will, understandably, be just a bit annoyed.

The proper thing to say in these situations is nothing, our title word for the day. Or, if you are close enough to the family, you might remark, “Ugly!” while you pinch the infant’s cheek. While that might make an American mother stomp off in a huff, the animistic mom would smile. First of all you are helping her to fool the spirits. They will not catch the irony in your voice, apparently. And secondly, she will know that you meant to say that her child was beautiful.

What you meant to say. That’s the key. Not translating the exact words you you would have said in your own language. But how to communicate what’s in your heart.

And that’s what translation is all about.

cartoon credit: Hugh MacLeod (c)



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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8 Responses to Wednesday Word: Nothing

  1. Morning Light says:

    Well Billy, another engrossing and eloquent essay. I hope you are writing these with the intention of publishing a collection. Great market would be college course list.

  2. I hope that you don’t think that this is “nothing”! I’m passing on the “Versatile Blogger Award” to you; your writing seems quite deserving!

  3. Don says:

    I agree that’s a better question. I had one of my students ask me “How would you say ‘Bon appetit’ in English?”.

    Of course I told him that you wouldn’t, and in fact, it is SO foreign an idea in English that if you absolutely must say it, you’ll have to borrow the French expression.

    That earned me nothing but a pretty confused look.

    • Bill Davis says:

      Great example of the same principle. “How do you say…” doesn’t work! Bon appetit not only won’t fly with a literal translation, there is hardly a meaningful approximation. “Enjoy your meal” would be the closest, right? C’est la vie could be another one, I’m thinking (drawing my infinitely limited knowledge of French!)

  4. Pingback: A Post About Nothing » Diary of a SAHM

  5. Pingback: A Post About Nothing | Essentially Jess

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