A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Monday, January 17, 2011

"What Did You Call Me?" - Our Distrust Of The Unknown (And Ourselves)

            I enjoy saying greetings/farewells in other languages, because usually, if you wave and smile at the person you’re addressing, they’ll understand you. At least, so my logic went. But I’ve noticed a trend among people when I do this.
            As I was exiting a class, I called to the teacher “Jó napot kívánok!” – “Have a nice day!” Almost immediately, the two people next to me asked “What did you call her?”
            As I approach a friend in the hallway, I cheerfully say “Päivää!” Her response? “What did you call me?”
            What astounds me is that it happens even when what I’m saying sounds like an English word  - “Hei hei” sounds close enough to “Hey” for recognition, wouldn’t you think?
            But I see this all the time, and I think it reveals a lot more than just that most people don’t know multilingual greetings. I think it’s a reflection of our natural distrust of two things. 1.The unknown. 2.Other people.
            The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, right? Fear of what we can’t understand is only natural. But it’s not really the unknown we fear when we worry that what this person just said to us was an insult – it’s ourselves.
            To me, this shows an inherent distrust in others of our kind. We assume that, when we’re not there, people will be talking about us or spreading rumors behind our backs, unbeknownst to us. And saying something to us in a language we don’t understand is just another way of hiding their treachery, isn’t it?
            Forgive me if this sounds ridiculously over-analytical, but I think it’s telling that we can’t trust in people with a few words. Just try to be a little more trusting – if a person you consider your friend is smiling and acting friendly, they’re probably not saying “I’m going to murder you with a steak knife.”
            (If they are, it would probably be a lot longer.)

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