Thursday, March 29, 2007

of pragmatics and my parents

Recently, I’ve gotten to understand my parents better from what they say from my elang module Pragmatics, Ethnopragmatics in particular. For the non-elangers, practically all of you, pragmatics is the study of language that is used in conversations, i.e. what a speaker really means when he/she says something. Ethnopragmatics will then be the study of conversations in the context of different ethnics or cultures.

This is something from one of my readings by the Jewish writer Sholom Aleichem:

There are as many types of curses as there are people cursing, but the hardest to explain is the mother cursing her child. The child may be crying because he is hungry. The mother bursts out, ‘Eat, eat, eat. All you want to do is eat. May the worms eat you. May the earth open up and swallow you alive.’ This mother loves her child, she is only pouring out the bitterness that’s in her heart in the only way she knows. But in translation she sounds like a monster. (Butwin, 1958:9)

As the translator’s comment shows, reading stories can be an exercise in crosscultural communication—and it can involve miscommunication. If on the basis of cultural practices that a given piece of literature reflects we can formulate some rules of interpretation, we can help to minimize such miscommunication and build crosscultural bridges between readers and writers. In the case of Jewish culture whose vehicle was Yiddish, we can propose, inter alia, the following rule of interpretation:

when people say something like this to someone:
‘‘I want something very bad to happen to you’’

they can want to say something like this with these words:
‘‘when I think about you now I feel something bad’’

Formulated from the Yiddish speaker’s point of view, the cultural script in question might read:

if I feel something very bad when I think about someone
I can say something like this to this person:
‘‘I want something very bad to happen to you’’

When I was younger, ok, not that much younger, I used to cry myself silly when my parents said hurtful things. I've since realised that they don't really mean such horrible words. Rather, it's part of their chinese mindset/culture. Sometimes, we yearn to have our parents or loved ones tell us they love us and all things nice, like what we watch on tv. But what we expect from them is akin to asking them change their skin colour.

In Chinese culture, the only way Chinese know how to express a warning is by saying something like this:

When I feel bad for you,
I say something like this:
This very bad thing will happen to you.

In essence, they just want you to know that this "bad thing" will happen if you continue being naughty/ rebellious, which is something they hope won't happen to you.

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