An influential tradition in linguistics has it that languages are, in some important sense, communicatively equivalent: anything that you can say in one language, you can say in another (modulo trivial lexical differences). I think this formulation is attractive to some because, apart from combatting racist claims about ‘primitive languages’, it deals a blow to certain understandings of linguistic relativity, which has long been a source of controversy.
There are many ways, however, in which any two given languages are not communicatively equivalent, as most people who have spent time living in two significantly different language communities will probably tell you. Part of the discrepancy here is that claims of communicative equivalence frequently focus on the ability to translate propositions of the “The cat is on the mat” variety, whereas the subjective sense of the non-equivalence of languages stems in part from the fact that certain interactional uses of language in one language have no clear counterpart in the other. One domain in which this is particularly clear is in that of interactional micro-rituals.
Let me illustrate this point in terms of the translatability of “thank you” between English and Nanti, an Arawak language of the Peruvian Amazon I have worked with. Nantis, like all human beings, perform acts for each other, and give each other gifts. Unlike speakers of English (and numerous other languages), however, Nantis do not express their gratitude by employing a routinized micro-ritual that makes use of a fixed expression like “thank you”. When I first started living in the Nanti communities, I was struck by what seemed to me to be the nonchalance with which Nantis accepted gifts, which seemed to me (since I was raised to expect SAE thanking micro-rituals) to border on a tremendous lack of enthusiasm for the gifts they frequently received from their kin and friends. I soon realized, however, that what mattered to Nantis was substantive reciprocation — that’s how they expressed their appreciation for gifts and services — and not a thanking micro-ritual. In a significant sense, then, there is simply no way to say “thank you” in Nanti. And this is not because Nantis are not considerate (they are extremely so) or unappreciative of favors done on their behalf, but simply because Nantis just do not employ a routinized micro-ritual based on a discursive formula to express gratitude and appreciation.
Let me now turn to a very public example of the translational knots into which one can tie oneself if one attempts to translate an interactional ritual from one language into another which lacks that ritual. In the late 1990s, the municipal government of Iquitos built a nice archway over the highway just outside the airport, designed to welcome people arriving in the city, and to bid farewell to those departing. As one can see in the image, the main part of the archway on is in Spanish, with two little extensions that feature a translation into English and another into Iquito. (For the political background on the surprising presence of prose written in a highly endangered indigenous language on this archway, see this post.) The correspondence in meaning between the Spanish and English is quite good, but as we shall see, the correspondence between the Spanish and Iquito is quite poor. The point I wish to make is that this discrepancy does not reflect any deficiency on the part of the translator, but rather, reflects the fact that the Standard Average European interactional micro-ritual represented on the arch has no direct counterpart in Iquito society.
Let’s take a closer look at the prose:
Spanish: Bienvenidos a nuestra tierra. ‘Welcome to our land.’ (my translation)
English (on the archway): Welcome to Iquitos.
Iquito (on the sign): Kishwara Kiníí.
Iquito (cleaned up): Quí-sihu+raa quí-níiya ‘I am visiting my land.’
We see that some liberties have been taken with the English translation — but certainly there would have been no difficulty rendering it more faithfully. The Iquito ‘translation’ however, seems to fall quite far from the mark. (The cleaned up version employs the official Iquito orthography; ‘+’ represents a high central vowel.) Right off, we see that the Iquito sentence seems to be using the wrong person — first person instead of second — and thus is not directed to the arriving traveller. Then we note that it implies that the arriving person is actually *from* the Iquitos area (‘*I* am visiting *my* land’), which runs counter to our expectations about the appropriate recipients of acts of ‘welcoming’. And finally, the sentence doesn’t have the right illocutionary force — it’s simply an observation, and doesn’t perform an act of welcoming.
The oddness of the Iquito translation here basically stems from the fact that there is no generic interactional micro-ritual of ‘welcoming’ in Iquito society, and no corresponding discursive formula (e.g. ‘bienvenidos’) for carrying out the ritual. This is not to say there are no welcoming micro-rituals at all, but rather that there is no all-purpose one. The one welcoming micro-ritual that I have seen in regular use is the expression: Tiquiaar+’+! Ajiít+qui! ‘Enter! Sit down!’, when a visitor shows up at the door of a house. But crucially, this is not a general welcoming ritual, but one tied to a particular interactional context. Consequently, there is no micro-ritual for welcoming someone to a place as large as a city or a ‘land’. To be clear, when someone shows up in an Iquito community, the residents can of course, be welcoming — by, for example, expressing pleasure at the arrival of the visitor or attending to their needs. The point is simply that there is no generic interactional micro-ritual for welcoming someone that employs some lexical homologue to ‘Welcome!’.
Contrast the Iquito situation with the Standard Average European micro-rituals of welcoming, which can be deployed in a very wide range of contexts:
What we see then, is a lack of correspondence between SAE welcoming micro-rituals and those in Iquito society. I do not know the details of the story behind how the Iquito text wound up on the arch, but I can make an educated guess: a city official charged with obtaining the (non-existent) equivalent in Iquito to “Bienvenidos a mi tierra” located an Iquito speaker and asked him or her to translate it. The Iquito speaker, put on the spot by the important official, thought furiously about how to satisfy the official’s request, and came up with a rough calque based on the similarity between venir ‘come’ and sihu+ráani ‘visit’, thereby giving quí-sihu+raa ‘I am visiting’ as an equivalent for bienvenidos ‘welcome’. This got the Iquito speaker out of a tight spot, and the official left happy, with something to put on the new arch. But really, the Iquito speaker was in an impossible situation: that of coming up with a discursive formula for a type of micro-ritual that simply doesn’t exist in Iquito society.
If the observations of colleagues working in other societies is any indication, the incommensurability of SAE micro-rituals like the ones I’ve been discussing here with those found in small-scale societies is actually the norm. Why might this be? If we reflect about the interactional distribution of welcoming and thanking (and we can throw in saying ‘please’), it’s fairly clear, I think, that these micro-rituals are primarily employed in interacting with non-intimates. The existence of these rituals is in part an artifact of our need in large-scale societies to constantly maintain superficially amicable short-term relationships with strangers and near-strangers. In small-scale societies, on the other hand, the need to grease the wheels of interaction with non-intimates is minimal, and consequently, the micro-rituals developed to deal with non-intimates are absent.
The obvious next question is whether small scale societies give rise to broad classes of interactional micro-rituals not found in large scale ones, which involve discursive formulas that are as difficult to translate into SAE languages as SAE formulas are to translate into Nanti and Iquito. So far, my best guess concerns forms of requesting and inviting that are highly inexplicit, and do not call for any overt acceptance or rejection by an interlocutor. For example, in Nanti society, people employ the expression Aityo oburoki (lit. ‘There is manioc beer.’) to invite someone to a manioc beer party. This constitutes an invitation, but not one that requires any kind of response, thereby allowing the recipient of the invitation to avoid committing to attend or rejecting the invitation. I’m not sure that there is a discursive formula in English which both constitutes an invitation and yet permits the invitee to be totally non-committal in response. Certainly this can be achieved by elaborating on the invitation (“Hey, no pressure, but we’ve got some manioc beer, and if you want, y’know, you can come — but hey, only if you want…”) but that’s not quite the same. In Nanti society, there are numerous interactional micro-rituals like Aityo oburoki which allow interactants to make requests and offers in such a way as to avoid social embarrassment, which I could see as advantageous in a small close-knit society in which it is important for neighbors and kin to get along. I’d be interested to know if other people have found similar micro-rituals in other small-scale societies.
In any event, I think that these micro-rituals nicely illustrate that language use becomes routinized in particular cultural-interactional niches for particular social-actional ends, resulting in conventionalizations of linguistic form for which it may be difficult to find cross-linguistic communcative equivalents.