Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Language Mistakes = Laughter + Learning

One of my favorite aspects of Samoan as a language and culture is its many proverbs and sayings. They are most useful in oratory, but as a pālagi, or foreigner, I like to use them to teu le vā (if you don't know what that means, see my previous post) in a way that usually produces laughter.

Once I used a Samoan saying in a very funny way. I had found the following saying in my dictionary, which had been derived from Schultz's work on Samoan proverbial expressions.
E toa e [sic] le loto, ʻae pā le noʻo. The will is strong but the hips are broken (i.e., the spirit is strong but the flesh is weak).
It seemed innocuous enough, so I busted it out about 18 months into my mission. The only problem was that noʻo doesn't mean hips, it means bowels. And  doesn't mean broken, it means burst or exploded.

I was serving in American Samoa and had come down with something nasty that killed my appetite--a big problem when you're a missionary in Samoa. We stopped by one family's place and they had prepared the customary meal for us. I only ate a token amount.

The woman who retrieved my tray of food commented on how little I'd eaten. I tried smoothing over the insult with an apology, which translated as, "In truth the desire to eat a lot was there, but as the saying of old men goes, 'The will is strong, but the hips are broken.'"

My Samoan missionary companion burst into laughter. I was startled and asked him why. That made him laugh even harder because he realized that I'd made my mistake in complete innocence.

He asked me where I had heard that saying. I told him that I'd found it in my dictionary. He asked me if I knew what it meant. I answered in the affirmative, telling him what its figurative application was supposed to be.

He assured me that in that sense of it I wasn't wrong. It was the literal meaning that I hadn't understood. He asked me if I understood the word . Yes, I said. He asked if hips, as in hip bones, burst. I had to admit they don't. He then asked me if I knew what was located near the hips which could burst.

It took me a second to think his question through. Then, in a burst of inspiration, it dawned on me what I had said: "The will is strong, but my bowels have burst."

The thing about Samoans is that they have a splendid sense of humor; fortunately, one that can even accommodate a little inadvertent potty humor from an unsuspecting foreigner.

Subsequent to my slip up, my companion and I would retell the story to fits of laughter. Victor Borge once said, "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people." Borge was both funny and wise.

So if you're learning a new language--and I hope it's Samoan--don't be afraid of making mistakes. They'll often be riotously funny, and by so doing, you'll likely get the help you need to not make it again, and you will have drawn closer to the people you're with.


Whitney Hardie said...

I think I've heard this story before. And it made me laugh just as much this time around.

Nate said...

Thanks, Whitney!