A language of sharing and poetic pictures

As he learns an obscure language of the South Pacific, the author learns about world views

The Woleaian word for "starfish" is gattiuliyal, meaning "fingers of the sun." I learned this bit of poetry during my two years of Peace Corps service on Woleai Atoll. My first major task as a volunteer, along with learning enough about the culture so I wouldn't mortally offend everyone I met, was to learn the language.

If you have a good world map, you may be able to find Woleai, located in Micronesia, 400 miles of lonely ocean south of Guam. The atoll is made up of 19 very small islands - all of them beautiful, only five of them inhabited.

The total population is about 850. Add in some people living on nearby islands, plus the Woleaians currently living in Yap, Guam, and the United States, and you have a total of perhaps 2,000 people worldwide who speak Woleaian.

Not too many people get wildly enthusiastic about learning a language that has produced no literature and has 2,000 or fewer speakers. It's a language one is likely never to hear again after a two-year term of service. But that's just the sort of language Peace Corps volunteers often get to learn.

I have two definite opinions about language: (1) knowing a language is a wonderful thing; (2) learning a language has a lot in common with daily trips to the dentist. Survival, however, is a great motivator, so I buckled down.

Fortunately, on my third day of study I discovered clouds. I learned that the sky is lang, that animals are mal, and that clouds are langimaal (sky animals). I imagined them grazing on their wide, blue pasture.

Then I discovered "doubled" words. Woleaian gerag (pronounced huh-RAUH) means "to crawl." Geragerag means "to crawl around." Shiu means "bone," and shiushiu means "bony." Lap is "big"; lapelap is "bigger."

In an oral culture, it seems right that rongorong (to hear) is formed from the word for "tradition" (rong). It also seems fitting that a natural metaphor for islanders has turned bwat (low tide) into bwatebwat (thirsty).

Studying Woleaian reminded me that metaphor is basic to every language. In addition to wetiyas (eagles) and bwatebwat, my blue-ribbon metaphor collection includes ligesuburaaru (spider). A rough translation of this four-word compound is "one who has been born branchy."

I liked the name so much I started liking the creatures better as well.

I also liked bwatuul yaremat, which can be translated as both "a crowd of people" and "a bush of people." Ngiulew (to kiss) is made up of "to chew" and "tongue." Or is that too literal to be a metaphor?

But after five weeks of intense study, I panicked. I suddenly realized that I had not learned the Woleaian equivalent for "to have." How could I have overlooked something so basic? In English, you learn "to have" shortly after "to be." "Have" is the 11th most commonly used word in English; the concept is essential.

I had previously studied German and Spanish and knew that haben and tener held equally important places in those languages, respectively. I must have been doing a terribly inept job of learning Woleaian. What else had I missed?

Well, whatever else I'd missed, I hadn't missed "to have." It wasn't there to be missed. There are Woleaian equivalents for some of its uses, but not for the term itself. You cannot, in Woleaian, say "I have food," or "I have a car." You cannot "have" a wife, a good time, or a seat on an airplane. You cannot even "have" the flu. (The equivalent is "the flu saw me.")

Why do Woleaians lack a term so central to the other languages I knew? I have a theory. Language reveals culture, and Woleaian life is generally based on sharing, rather than owning. "To have," which is basically an ownership term, is simply not that important there.

In a society where food and many other things are automatically shared, "Is there breadfruit?" is a more reasonable question than "May I have some breadfruit?" The first is a standard question in Woleaian, the second cannot be said. Woleaians do have ways to denote ownership, of course. But sharing plays a larger role in their lives, and ownership plays a smaller role in their language.

Whatever the reason for the lack of "to have," there's no mystery behind the most common form of "hello" among Woleaians. Butog mwongo! (Come and eat!) expresses their hospitality, their love of food, and their love of sharing. It is not just a greeting, it is a genuine invitation - at any time of the day or night.

I've no talent for learning languages, and I never look forward to drilling one into my head. But the process does have its bright moments: when I suddenly acquire a new way of seeing crowds, clouds, or "to have." Learn enough, and it's like trying on a whole new world view.

When I look at it that way, I didn't leave Woleaian behind me forever when I left the islands. The language's usefulness should continue for a long while.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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