Ubuntu (Hellos and Goodbyes, Part 2 of 2)

    • Disclaimer 1 (for IT folks): No, this article is not about Linux-based operating systems.
    • Disclaimer 2 (for non-language geeks): You may find this article a bit heavier than normal. If so, feel free to scroll down to the last paragraph which sums it all up.

    Swedish poet Hjalmar Gullberg (d. 1961) opined that the ancient custom of strangers meeting, only to exchange brief words about the road, and then parting again, eases the pain of a farewell, and that this should be the way we interact with people. Sweden was a trailblazer in the early spread of telephone technology, and regardless of whether Gullberg’s poem had this specifically in mind, the telephone may indeed have had a tangible impact on the way people interact. Professor Alan Koenigsberg has remarked that, “The phone overnight cut right through the 19th-century etiquette that you don’t speak to anyone unless you’ve been introduced.” Today, a century and a half later, this has only increased, with people commonly accepting electronic “friend requests” from individuals they have never met. Nevertheless, it has been argued that technology is making us more alone, and has the potential to harm the way we think and focus. I will not delve into these debates, but will comment briefly on a couple of aspects of the interplay between language and the human condition.

    Languages as Different Ways of Seeing the World

    In my previous blog post, we saw that “Hello” in English is simply a hailing word, whereas In Arabic, rather than a simple hailing, other expressions (that carry the sense of welcome) were the norm. Therefore, the common translations of “Hello,” into Arabic are functional, rather than literal translations. It is enrichingly revealing to realize that different languages express themselves differently in the same situations (as we got some sense for in the discussion about various hellos and goodbyes). But languages are not just different ways of expressing the same ideas; they often involve different ways of looking at the world, and this is one of the ways in which learning languages broadens your horizons. The Italian Marxist political thinker Gramsci (d. 1937) advocated the teaching of Latin (which had long been a dead language by his time), because he realized that learning a language develops a person’s critical consciousness, and provides “a profound ‘synthetic’ phislosophical experience.” Of course, one does not have to share Gramsci’s political views in order to agree with his observations on the enriching potential of learning a new language.

    Language and Humanness

    We might also wonder whether the way we say something impacts our broader and deeper human experience. If I were to judge from the difference between English and Arabic hellos, I might have initially have guessed the impact to be minimal, given that most speakers of Arabic and English today are probably not conscious of the underlying and original meanings of the greetings they are using. But perhaps there is reason to pause and reconsider.

    Both social norms and language are dynamic, and there might sometimes be links between the ways in which each changes. For example, the use of traditional polite expressions seems to be on the decline in English, with many people nowadays either omitting them or replacing them with new expressions (e.g. Responding to a “Thank you!” with “You got it!” instead of “You’re welcome.”) Whether or not this necessarily implies that people are less polite nowadays has been debated, but some psychologists have demonstrated that expressions of gratitude have a positive effect on our emotional states (and by the same token, hurtful words can not only cause emotional trauma, but even structural changes to the brain). Similarly, it has been suggested that the customary Shona greetings foster and cultivate the attitude of ubuntu (humanity, or “a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”) One could perhaps suggest the same about many greetings and farewells in various others languages, for these often contain some inquiry about, or wish for, the other person’s well-being. We might even venture that people are aware, on some level, of the ubuntu / humanitas sentiments of their greetings. After all, if you are really angry with someone, chances are you will dispense with these “niceties” when you speak to them.

    The concept of ubuntu is very similar to the Latin humanitas, which refers to the full development of “humanness” (including human virtues). The English word “humanities” derives from the Latin term “humanitas,” which refers to the full development of “humanness” (including human virtues). The Arabic word adab أدب refers to both literature and etiquette. Language is a fundamental part of the human condition, and the study of language obviously falls under the domain of the “humanities.” For Italian thinker Lorenzo Valla (d. 1457), language in fact represented the synthesis of all human thought. And much earlier, a pre-Islamic Arabian poet remarked,

    The lad’s tongue is half of him, and [the other] half his heart,

    So naught remains thereafter save the [mere] form of flesh and blood.”

    In any case, since I started this post with comments on how technology has changed our communication, it is appropriate to end on the same note, but with a couple of practical take-away points that suggest themselves to me:

    1. Language is integral to the human condition, and all human languages have the potential to be used positively or negatively. When communicating in the virtual world, in particular, let us not forget the etiquette and netiquette that reflect our ubuntu, our humanitas. Its a lot easier to not be nice when the other person is not physically in front of you.
    2. Recall from my previous post that the ways in which the “world” is described are illuminating, covering meanings of immediacy, nearness, human history, and distinct spheres. The virtual world is a new sphere of our existence, but if we lose touch with the “immediacy” of our tangible surroundings and direct interactions, then “the age of man” runs the risk of losing its humanitas and spiralling ever further “down”.

    Feel free to agree with me, correct me, or dismiss this as the random ravings of a listless linguaphile.

    – Suheil Laher


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