Originally written in TACKED THOUGHTS for The Freeman
by Nancy Unchuan Toledo
The other week, I brought my 4-year-old nephew to the toy store. On our way back to meet his mother, he was riddled with comments and questions-the retail high had gotten to him and he wouldn’t let go of his new toy. Along the way, he casually mentioned: “It’s a little heavy.” I asked him if he wanted me to carry it. But he only looked at me strangely, “I said it was only a LITTLE heavy.” He meant exactly what he said. It was only a little heavy.
When someone first learns a language or first learns to speak, they are more likely to say exactly what they mean. There are no double meanings because he doesn’t know enough about the culture to understand the second meaning. The words he uses are more precise, simpler, because the vocabulary is limited. Thus, to my nephew, “it’s a little heavy,” was not a code word for “you should offer to help me carry it.” I’d gotten so used to reading between the lines and trying to figure out the things left unsaid, that the things that were said had escaped me.
Filipinos are especially good at asking for favors without really asking outright or saying something and meaning something else. For example, when someone is eating, she invites a guest by saying, “Let’s eat.” To which the guest replies the Bisaya equivalent of “yes.” But the guest is not expected to sit and eat. Merely to say, yes, I acknowledge your show of hospitality but I really don’t intend to eat with you and impose on your good graces. So many social customs riding on that one word. I’m sure there are so many more examples of the things we leave unsaid.
I often forget that these cultural norms and nuances in language are learned. We are not born practicing them. And when we first speak, things are taught to us exactly as they appear-a picture of an apple really points to an apple, a bird a bird, a cat a cat and so on and so forth. It is only much later that we realize that words can mean something else, what a person says does not always point to what he does and that the truth can be falsified.
Of course, I am not naïve enough to think that language should only be precise and not abstract when this is the very reason that I love language in the first place. But even as I love the ambiguity of language, I also love it in its purest forms. So, I’ll treasure my little chats with my nephew for a while longer because when we talk about talking clownfish and purple velociraptors, we really are talking about talking clownfish and purple velociraptors.