Walking to checkout my friend, Leo’s, tattoo shop the other day, a car drove up the hill and as it passed us, the driver gave a lazy drop of the hand wave out the right side window (most cars here are Japanese so the driver is on the right side of the car; cars still drive on the right side of the road though) and a few guttural words rolled out his mouth as he continued on up the hill. It sounded to me something like, bukchuluk”. Linguistics and especially the diverse and overlapping sound banks of all the world’s languages are so fascinating to me. Any language can probably find its own special way of convincing me that it’s beautiful, sexy, strong, or even superior to other languages for describing a situation at hand. Even Cantonese, with its sharpness and 9 tones, can sound elegant in its unique flexible sound. The guttural sounds in Yapese are way outside my familiar phonemes. So, naturally (as any dorky language lover), I wanted to try to reproduce these sounds. I asked Leo what his friend had said. “Taboch gow” which means, “See you later”. I managed to grumble through a possibly comprehensible echo of the phrase after asking Leo repeat it two or three times. Useful phrase. But this led to a much more interesting conversation.
I asked about a few more words.
Kefel – Goodbye
Thank you – Kamagar
Mogethin – Hello/How’s it going/What’s up?
Then Leo went on to describe his confusion over American greetings. He describes it something like this….
So when I see my American friends on the street, they say to me ‘Hey, How’s it going?’ and I respond, “Hey,” and start to answer them. But then they just pass right by me without saying anything else and are gone. And I’m left like, what? They asked me a question, right?
Leo says he doesn’t understand the point of asking ‘What’s up?’ if you are not actually waiting for an answer or prepared to have a conversation. He goes on to explain that in Yap, if you are just passing by someone whom you know but with whom you aren’t going engage in a conversation, you just say, “Taboch gow.”, or simply “Kefel.” But not, “hi”. A ‘hello’ implies an intention is to start a conversation and take some time talking with the person.
I love this! This way of greeting someone with a clear expression of why you are greeting them (just to acknowledge you see and know them versus needing to talk for a few minutes) makes so much sense. Especially for a small island when you are bound to know pretty much everyone but don’t really need (or want!) to take time to do a 90+ second exchange every time you see someone- at the grocery store, then at the bank, and then again on the walk to your car! I’ve personally wished for a better greeting in English for the same reasons on Guam, while staying at a commune with 30 people in VA, at the marina where Pete and I live with about 15 residents, and even at University of Richmond where there were only 3000 undergraduates. UR students were greeting 25 acquaintances (or not because it was too much hassle) every time you walked across campus. Isn’t there a better, more comfortable way to do this? Well, yes, but only the Yapese have it figured out. Americans haven’t yet. (Note: I do feel generally a “hey!” is effective, but is often also perceived as somewhat abrupt.)
But Yapese is not the only language that realizes the importance a succinct greeting. This was often something I loved discussing and practicing with my Chinese students. In Chinese very rarely do people actually use the only phrase with which most non-Chinese speakers are familiar, “Ni hao”. Instead, after spotting an acquaintance, one would ‘greet’ or acknowledge them with a direct observation of what the other person is doing (formed into a question- just add a question mark). So if you run into your neighbor at the bus stop you would ask, “Waiting for the bus?” Then, if the person who is being greeted wants to simply acknowledge the person (but not start a conversation) they simply respond, “(Yep I’m) waiting for the bus.” And that’s that. They go about their lives. If the person being greeted wants to initiate a conversation then he/she could go on to say, “Oh! Anyi, long time no see! Yes, I’m waiting for the bus. I have to go to town to get a new soy milk machine!”, or whatever else they want to say to their friend/acquaintance. Sometimes, the greeting might not even be about what the two people are doing, but instead about what’s going on in the environment. A possible exchange could sound something like this, “It’s really raining!”, “Yes, it’s a lot of rain!” and then they continue about their way. This is a polite way of leaving it up to the person you are greeting what type of interaction you are going to have. You aren’t asking questions about why they are waiting for the bus, where they are going, or even how their day is going (When we ask ‘how’s it going?’ a negative answer isn’t really socially acceptable, is it?). You are just opening up the possibility for conversation or a simple acknowledgement.
While Yapese explicitly state, “Bye” when passing a friend (which leaves little room for negotiation), another alternative could be being more ambiguous with your greeting. I’m thinking about “Aloha” in Hawaiaan or “Anyong” in Korean. While there are plenty of jokes about how confusing this must be (‘You try to end a conversation and it just starts right over again!), I would argue that while it’s ambiguous, it at least doesn’t leave you hanging like an American ‘How’s it going?’ does (trying to figure out if there is more conversation to be had or not). It leaves the ball in both people’s courts. If you greet one another “Aloha” and neither person has anything else to say, then you’ve acknowledged one another move on. If one person has something to say, then you are opening yourself up to a conversation (but you knew that when you said ‘Aloha’). Perhaps you could argue that this is what ‘How’s it going’ has evolved into but I’m not sure that the phrase is quite there. And it’s direct translation doesn’t share the same spirit as Aloha or Anyong which, I believe are more like wishing someone well and acknowledging their person (like Namaste or “I see you” from Avatar).
I might just start greeting everyone with Aloha from now on. But if that doesn’t work out don’t be offended if I greet you with a succinct and efficient, “goodbye”. Just trying to save the time you will waste talking to me. 😉