Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Greetings are really fascinating to Linguists, as they’re often culturally specific, quite colorful, and sometimes very elaborate.

For one of my classes, I (along with five other people and professor) am working with a speaker of Zarma, a language of Niger. The goal of the class is to study the language and create a working grammar, then focus in on one particular aspect of the language we find fascinating. Right now, we’re in the process of translating a narrative about the marriage rituals of the Zarma people, and we stumbled across an interesting little tidbit.

To start off this narrative, our professor offered the speaker a greeting in Zarma, fufu, which is roughly equivalent to our simple “Hi!”. The speaker responded with ba:n sami wo:la (the colons indicate long vowels, “baan samee woluh”). This is a much more complex phrase, translating down to something roughly like “God be praised, my health is without problems”, or, more succinctly, “I’m doing fine”. The speaker explained to us that the fufu, ba:n sami wo:la interaction is a normal way of carrying out a greeting in Zarma. After the Ba:n sami wo:la, he went straight into the narrative.

My first thought at that point (which I’m not proud to admit) was that it seemed a bit pretentious. “What would they care how you were doing, all they said was “Hi””, I thought to myself.

Then, I realized. English is no less pretentious, I’m just more used to our system. Generally, at least in my bit of the English speaking world, a greeting includes some variety of “How are you?/What’s up?” interaction. First, the first person puts out a “how are you?”, the second person gives a generic answer, then asks the first person the same question back, and the first person answers generically. Only once that’s out of the way can a conversation begin.

Perhaps what’s missing from the Zarma greeting, in my culturally biased eyes, is the return question. It’s not “Hi”, “I’m healthy, are you?”, “I am too”. It doesn’t seem, based on the simple interaction, that the second participant actually cares about the first person.

The trouble with that point of view is that English speakers don’t actually care how you’re doing or what’s up, either. Take, for example, this made-up interaction:

(Fred walks into a gas station and goes to pay the attendant)
SHOPKEEPER: Hi, How are you today?
FRED: Well, actually, my prostate’s been acting up, so it’s an hour and a half of pain any time I have to go to the bathroom. Oh, and my dog died last week. So yeah, I’m having a tough time of it. How about you?
SHOPKEEPER: (extended pause) …I’m good

If you’re like me, reading that interaction likely caused at least a little bit of a cringe. It’s an unspoken rule that in general, when somebody asks you how you’re doing (or what’s up), they really, genuinely, don’t care. They want to finish the greeting and get on with life. You’re allowed a “Fine”, an “OK”, sometimes “Great!”, and maybe the occasional “I’ve done better, how are you?”. You are not, however, allowed to tell somebody how you actually are.

There are, as always, exceptions. If a family member (or very close friend) asks, there’s a higher probability that they do care, and you’re welcome to actually answer truthfully. Similarly, you’re allowed to answer fully if somebody makes a special effort to encourage it, either through intonation (“So how ARE you?”) or through context (when a doctor asks, you don’t say “Fine”, you actually explain what’s wrong). Similarly, a “What’s up?” can be answered truthfully if the person looks like they’re trying to arrange or accomplish something (“So, what’s up? Going anywhere?”), or if the person has a legitimate interest in your activities.

Sometimes when we’re only greeting each other in passing, we have absolutely NO interest at all in the other person’s activities, and don’t even bother to use the correct response. In the dorms, just walking by people you know, it’s not at all uncommon to hear a hybrid greeting, like “What’s up?” “Fine, you?” or “How are you?” “Not much”. Sometimes, you’ll stop to correct yourself, and use the right greeting, perhaps with a minor blush, but generally, it’s not even noticed.

We can contrast English’s lack of caring with one example from the (quite complex) Samoan greeting system. In English, if you meet somebody on the street and they ask “Where are you off to?”, you’re not required to be specific. You can just say “Oh, I’m headed to the store”, and that’s just fine. However, in Samoan, if somebody of higher status (a chief/orator to a commoner, or an adult to a child) asks you where you’re going, you’re compelled to answer quite honestly, or else you’re being deceptive. Rather than just “I’m going to the beach”, you’d explain to the chief that you’re going to the beach to talk with your friend, then going over to the bar for a drink, then headed home to see your wife after that. Imagine telling that to the gas station clerk.

When you sit back and realize that in English, we don’t really care how people are or what they’re up to even when we ask, expressing one’s state of being without solicitation in a greeting doesn’t seem that unusual or pretentious.

So, if there’s one thing to learn from this, it’s this: Any time you think some other language is strange, remember that yours is just as strange, you’re just used to it.

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