Thursday, April 1, 2010

Cebuano Weltanschauung

There’s a long-running urban legend about how the Eskimos (actually, Inuits) have more than a hundred words to refer to “snow”, showing how involved their culture and life is with the stuff. It’s not actually true, research by linguists show there are only about seven distinct words.

In any case, there is some sense to this theory of Linguistic Relativism that claims that “the language we speak both affects and reflects our view of the world.”

My brother tells me that the Japanese are so involved with the craft of sword-making, that they apparently have distinct names to identify the origins of the particular sword, or the kind of the blade that has been used.

My friend Edgar and I also got a discussion about how in Filipino, we have different names for rice in its different stages –

Palay is for the unhusked grains.
Bigas when they’ve been turned into polished grains.
Kanin when cooked.
Tutong when burnt.

That’s not including variants of rice, such as malagkit, or ways of preparing rice – like sinangag or lugaw. Definitely not surprising, since we are a country that eats rice with every single meal, and sometimes even incorporate it into our snacks or dessert.

One thing that’s been puzzling me for a while now is how, in Cebuano (Bisaya), we have an unusual number of words to refer to people falling down. A long conversation over coffee with my brother got the count up to 10. There’s hagbong, hulog, pandol, sapid, dalin-as, dagma, umod, mo-mo, hapla and umpak.

Which begs the question – what is it about Cebuanos (or Visayans?) that has made our language around people “falling” so highly developed and descriptive?

You can even classify the words into two - the first set clearly defines a specific cause of the fall, while the second set gives you a pretty good idea of what happened as a result of the fall. (We’re not really linguists, so these are the words we know from our everyday use of the language.)

First of all, there are the generic words for “fall” – hagbong and hulog.

And here’s set one – words that clearly defines why the person fell:

Pandol: to fall due to a loss of coordination.
Sapid: to trip over an obstacle, as when your ankle gets caught in a rope
Dalin-as: to slip over a wet surface
Dagma / Dam-ag: to fall after running too fast

Then, there’s set two – words that define what happened after the person fell:

Umod: to fall face first
Mo-mo: to fall face-first, specifically with the nose and mouth receiving the impact
Hapla: to fall flat, with a large surface area touching the floor, but not face-first
Umpak: to fall on your behind

If you stretch it a little more, there’s a third group that describes how people fell. We figured it’s a bit too much of a stretch, and didn’t include it in the official count. But just for kicks, here they are:

Tulimbang: to flip over
Hagpa: to slam into something
Lagobo: to make a series of loud sounds while falling, the kind that makes you picture how many things the person banged into on the way down
Tagak: to fall from a higher level
Labay: to be thrown, as in motorcycle accidents
Labog: also refers to being thrown, but this word sounds more forceful than labay

Oh, and did I already mention that these are all words referring to people falling? There’s still a different set of words used when referring to objects that fall.

A guy named Wilhelm von Humboldt once said that "the diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world."

So again, the question is, why does Cebuano (Bisaya) have a very highly developed language around falling?

My brother’s theory is it’s because Cebu is a mountainous region, and so people fall a lot.

My theory is that Cebuanos just love a good laugh. And the clearer the image in our heads of someone falling, the better the story :D

What’s your theory?

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