Who What When Where Why Hello

“Paʔljɛ məntʃɔk məwəŋgɨkɔ?”

The question above translates to, “What does paʔljɛ mean?” A clue to the answer is in the title: paʔljɛ, a word I am likely to be using more often from now on, means “how”. But it also means “hello” — and we’ll get back to that.

Let me back up a little first. I’m currently taking a course called Fieldwork Methods, which is kind of like a linguistics student’s crash course in language documentation. That is to say, we are sort of pretending that we are off in some far-flung part of the world, working with a small community of speakers of an unknown or under-researched language in order to learn about its sounds and structure.

But we’re not doing what one might call archetypal fieldwork: we’re not in a rural village, but in a seminar room on campus. We’re not working alone and without easy access to the Internet and other resources, but all together as a class, collaborating and helping each other out. We’re not learning from a group of speakers, but from just one: his name is Guy (pronounced ‘ghee’, like in French), and he is an international student from Cameroon. Guy speaks a Bantu language called Tswefap ([tsʷəfap]), and he is the one who taught me how to say “hello”.

“What is a greeting we can use for anyone, at any time of the day?” we asked him during one elicitation session earlier this week. “Pa’ lye,” he replied. (I’ll switch from using IPA to a more English-friendly orthography; in both cases, however, I have been neglecting markings of tone in the language. Oh well.)

“How about if you see someone in the morning?” we continued. “Watsii.” And in the afternoon? “Watso.” So on and so forth.

Later, we asked something a bit trickier. “If I want to ask, using Tswefap, how to say a word… like, the phrase, ‘how do I say please in Tswefap?’… does that make sense?” After a moment’s confusion, Guy said, “Pungop please pa’ lye… meweba tswefabe.”

“Aha,” I thought. Pa’ lye again. “So,” I asked aloud, “you said pa’ lye before, when we asked you for ‘hello’. That means, pa’ lye on its own means…”

“How,” Guy said, “as in, ‘how are you doing?'”

“That’s good to know, Guy, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Hm… Pungop you’re welome pa’ lye?”

As it turns out, “you’re welcome” isn’t a common phrase in Tswefap, but anyway! I made sure to remember this bit of basic conversation, and the next time I saw Guy, I surprised him with a cheery, “Pa’ lye, Guy!” Actually, he was literally surprised. He did a double-take (since I had approached him from behind), and told me that the first thought that ran through his head when he heard me was, “Who on earth is speaking to me in Tswefap here?”

I think that one of the simplest ways to show respect for another language is to learn it from a native speaker. Two nota benes: I said simple, not easy. And also, this idea itself can be controversial depending on the cultural and historical context (I won’t go into it here). Linguists are not language collectors — the people who learn tons of foreign languages are called polyglots. But even the monolingual linguist would do well, I believe, to work toward basic fluency in whatever language they study. Language is obviously a straightforward point of cultural connection, and I wholly advocate for a more holistic approach to a field that can sometimes become too abstract or too far removed from, well, its primary subjects: people.

That said, for the purposes of this class, I’m going to continue to elicit endless verb conjugations, rhymes and random minimal pairs, and all the numbers from one to a thousand (hopefully not actually). But I also want to learn to converse with Guy, so that not only do I gain from the pre-professional experience, but that he also feels some of the satisfaction that comes from teaching something both useful and personal.

A scene from our fieldwork class; Guy is in the middle wearing the headset.

A scene from our fieldwork class; Guy is in the middle wearing the headset.


Word of the Day: ubuntu is a curious word not present in many dictionaries. It comes from the Nguni language, which is a different Bantu language (Southern Bantu, not grassfields) spoken in southern Africa, and refers to a kind of shared humanity. Ubuntu is the philosophical idea that our identity as human beings cannot exist unless in relationship to other human beings in society; a humanist ideology founded upon this concept is said to have fueled movements to Africanize the institutions of power in countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa. It is also the namesake of a Linux operating system about which I know next to nothing.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in school, what even is linguistics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Who What When Where Why Hello

  1. Yay, field methods! Do I spot Larry Hyman? Did you guys begin with monolingual elicitation? Last year, “hello” was one of the first words we learned in Maragoli (possibly the first?), but this year, I still don’t know how to greet someone in Efik.


    • Andrew C. says:

      Yes, that’s Larry! Our class is being co-taught by Larry and Steven Bird (U of Melbourne), and because both of them have worked on Cameroonian languages, well, it was no surprise that we were going to work on Tswefap. This language has a lot of interesting tone stuff (e.g. tonal contours are all that distinguish some tenses), so you’d like it! We haven’t been doing monolingual elicitation, though; Guy speaks English and French.


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