Essay: Enigma of Language

I recently watched a documentary programme on Japanese TV which mentioned a hunter-gatherer people called the “Baka”.  At first, I thought I had misheard the name as the word means “stupid” and “idiot” in Japanese, so I checked on the Internet and found that, indeed, there is such a tribe, part of the Pygmies, who live in the rainforest of Cameroon, Gabon and Congo.

Today, there are hundreds and thousands of languages spoken by many different peoples.  Some are similar in vocabulary and syntax because they have developed in close proximity, while many are entirely different from others being spoken by peoples living far apart on different continents.  Yet, even among those who seem to have had no point of contact in the past, we sometimes find words that are phonetically the same, though with entirely different meanings, as in the case of the Baka people and the same-sounding word in Japanese.

A friend of mine in Tokyo used to work for a parastatal organization which arranged visits for trainees from abroad to various industrial plants in Japan to see how workplace safety and health issues were being dealt with, for example, for improving productivity.  She not only arranged the itineraries of such visits, but often accompanied the trainees to factories.  She told me that she sometimes found foreign names so funny that she had to exercise great self-control to stop herself from bursting out laughing.  Occasionally, she found some names too embarrassing to say out loud.

Not long ago, when I was still working for a Geneva-based international organization, one of our senior executive directors visited Tokyo soon after his appointment, to make courtesy calls on the Japanese Labour Ministry and the representatives of the employers’ and workers’ organizations.  A colleague of mine based in our Tokyo office accompanied him.  She told me later that when she had introduced him to officials in each office, pronouncing his name clearly, she noticed some people trying very hard to suppress their urge to laugh.  She knew why.  The name of this executive director sounded similar to a word in Japanese which means a “completely exposed man, without even a loin cloth on”.

I realize that this kind of coincidence exists the other way around, with non-Japanese people finding some Japanese words or proper nouns funny or too embarrassing to utter.  A Tanzanian colleague came to my office one day with a small newspaper clipping from her country and asked me whether there was such a shameful last name as “Kumamoto” in Japan.  She even blushed as she pronounced it.  I could not understand why reading that name made her uncomfortable as it is a common name in my home country.  In fact, there is a prefecture called Kumamoto, while its government is located in Kumamoto city.  The article reported that the Japanese Government had designated a diplomat, a Mr. Kumamoto, as the new ambassador to Tanzania, but the Tanzanian Government had had to reject him apologetically on cultural grounds.  Since the two governments had enjoyed good diplomatic relations, the Tanzanian Government must have had to be extra careful in wording a negative response to the Japanese so as not to create any animosity between them.

Reading the article, I, as a Japanese person, could not understand why the name sounded so terrible to the Tanzanians.  So I asked my colleague what it meant in her society.  She hesitated before explaining haltingly; what I understood to be that the name roughly meant something like a “sexually aroused female organ”.  She pleaded with me not to make her repeat the name as it was too embarrassing for her to utter.  Listening to her, I was fully able to understand why the Tanzanian Government had to reject his appointment.  Had he had taken up his assignment and gone around meeting dignitaries during the course of his work, he could have made many people more than a little embarrassed or uncomfortable.  In this case, it must have been a discomforting oversight on the part of the Japanese embassy in Tanzania not to have advised its Tokyo head office accordingly before Mr. Kumamoto’s name was officially submitted to the host government.

I have always wondered how the same-sounding words, though with completely different meanings in the languages that have evolved in entirely different linguistic environments, really originated.  Pursuing such a mystery might prove quite interesting, even if only to satisfy my curiosity.

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