Spots of Time

December 02, 2003

Hold the Dogs

In Mongolian, the equivalent of "hello" translates to “Hold the dogs.”

Mongolia has historically been a remote and sparsely populated country. Most families live miles and miles from their nearest neighbors, and visitors are so rare that a face-to-face meeting requires plenty of warning. So, upon nearing a location, a traveler would stop about one mile away and shout out “Hold the Dogs!” – warning of their impending arrival. They would then wait several minutes, after which time they would progress another quarter of a mile, stop and repeat the phrase. This continued until the person finally arrived – giving both parties time to prepare for the meeting.

In Nepal, "Namaste" means something along the lines of "I salute your inner god-spirit." "Shalom," the Hebrew word for "Hello" also means "Peace." In Hawaiian, "Aloha" means "Hello" and "Goodbye." The Akha have the same word for good morning/good afternoon/good evening - "Udutoma."

Makes the English greeting of "Hello" dull by comparison, huh?

Languages are amazing. Anyone who speaks a second language can attest to the feeling of magic that occurs when you finally understand what someone is trying to tell you. Even those who don’t speak a second language have seen the power – think about a little child’s struggle to explain something but not having the words available in his limited vocabulary – and then, suddenly, that moment of comprehension!

Growing up bilingual, I loved that my family spoke a language that few people understood. It was my “secret language.” It allowed me to ask friends over for dinner, in full view of parents and kids, without anyone feeling uncomfortable. It allowed my brother and I to talk to each other at school or with friends about anything and everything we wanted – with no one else the wiser.

Even though I was born in the United States, I did not learn to speak English until I was three years old – and not without some problems. One of my first words, to which no one will claim responsibility, almost got me into trouble with my young neighbor – someone I was innocently trying to befriend.

I was about three years old at the time and standing at the fence that separated his yard from mine. He was seven year old and playing on his swing set. Our moms were working in their respective kitchens, keeping an eye on us through their windows.

“Dummy!” I cried out to him, a huge smile on my face. He stared at me – first confused, then angry. Then he started to swing higher. I was confused. I smiled again and called out, “Dummy!” He got a bit red in the face and started swinging even higher. Thank goodness for my mom, who chose this moment to come outside and explain that I had no idea what I was saying. A few minutes later we were both happily playing together.

Even when you grow up speaking another language, issues can occur. For example, in an early letter to my grandmother in Yugoslavia, one I wrote in Serbian and entirely on my own, I had accidentally written “pisam” instead of “pisem” – over and over again. The one letter difference may not seem like a big deal – but when you consider one word means “writing” and the other “peeing” the rogue vowel suddenly becomes very, very important – and very, very embarrassing!

At least my embarrassment was reserved for my own family – my friend Jordana was not so lucky. A fellow volunteer in the Akha village in Thailand, Jordana had an uncanny ability to pick up the local language – both Thai and Akha. Using the homemade phrasebook the NGO had given us, as well as her own hill tribe handbook, she spent many hours “speaking” to her host family. They seemed to understand most of what she was saying, but there was one phrase that brought about a confused and/or blank look every time.

Each day Jordana would enter the kitchen and offer to help the mother with cooking or cleaning. “Can I help you?” she said according to the Akha phrase in her book, smiling brightly. The woman always looked at her oddly, and never gave any kind of response. Undaunted, Jordana continued to ask, several times a day.

Upon returning to the clubhouse, the reason for her host mom’s strange behavior became apparent. Our phrasebook was not without errors and apparently this phrase had been wrongly translated. Instead of asking “Can I help you?” Jordana was in fact telling her host mother, multiple times on a daily basis, “I love you.”

However my favorite “language oops” story was shared with me recently while in Luang Prabang. Aaron, an American, was traveling in France for the first time. Fresh off the plane, he boarded the Paris underground, on his way to meet his girlfriend. He set his heavy backpack on one seat and sat down on another. As the train got closer to the city, more and more people go on board. Soon there were no free seats.

Just about then, a local man boarded the train. He noticed Aaron and his bag and began to berate him in a torrent of French words. Aaron had no idea what he was saying, but his tone was loud, angry and fierce. Soon, he had attracted the attention of the other passengers, all of who stared between the man and Aaron, tennis-match style. After what seemed like an eternity, the man paused in his tirade and looked expectantly at Aaron, as if this was his chance to explain, to redeem himself.

Mortified by the tongue-lashing, Aaron was speechless – almost. Summoning all his courage, he managed to squeak out the one French phrase he knew by heart. “Je voudrais un oeuf dur si’l vous plait.” The train burst out laughing and the man threw up his hands in exasperation, storming off the train

He said, “I’d like one hardboiled egg please.”

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Next week: The Laos Baci Ceremony