I used to think that language had to do only with what people say and how they say it. Until I started noticing a curious difference in what people hear and how they think they hear it.
For example: how does the rooster crow? How do people verbalize the sound that they hear the rooster making? You’d be amazed; you’d think we were listening to a different animal.
I found this out when I was doing my studies in French at the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1988. I was with a large group of international students and we had already started to build rapport with each other, every now and then expressing our curiosity about each other’s languages, aside from the common language we were currently learning at the Institute. The experience was a lot of fun. It was also very educational.
One of us asked how we said THANK YOU in our own languages and what we mean when when say it that way. I started by saying we say SALAMAT PO. What it literally means? I said I guess it was related to the word SALAAM, SALEM, SHALOM, which means PEACE. I knew already back then that, in Bahasa Indonesia, SELAMAT could be added to any time of the day—as a form of greeting “good morning/afternoon/evening/ night“. It could even be added to the moment of arrival or departure and convey one’s good wishes of welcome and goodbye. The fact that Malays wish each other well, using the word SALAAM could mean we actually express gratitude by saying PEACE BE WITH YOU!
Our teacher found it fascinating. He looked at another fellow Filipino student from the Ilocos region and said, “What about you, Mademoiselle? How do you say THANK YOU in your country?’ She said, “I’m also Filipino, Monsieur, but we say it differently in our place. We say, DIOS TI AGNGINA.” The professor was surprised to find out that the Filipinos in his class did not speak Tagalog as a maternal tongue. He had only France as his point of reference, and he referred to the differences in speaking the same French language as “dialects”. He was therefore amused to hear us insist that we spoke, not just dialects of the same Tagalog language, but distinct regional languages with their own grammar, syntax and vocabulary.
He understood immediately when I said, “I am sure you will refuse to call French a mere dialectal variation of a common Latin language, would you?” So I proceeded to explain to him that some Filipino languages like Kapampangan, Ilocano, Cebuano, Ilongo, and Tagalog were as related to each other as Spanish, Italian, French and Portuguese are.
Since we had started the conversation with expressing gratitude, he noted that the English THANK YOU is in fact more closely related to the German and Dutch DANKE, which has to do with thinking or thoughtfulness (DENKEN in German). He also noted that the Spanish GRACIAS and the Italian GRAZIE represent yet another worldview that is no doubt Latin (GRATIAS), which understands thankfulness as an acknowledgement of grace or blessing. The Portuguese go beyond acknowledgment with their OBRIGADO, which emphasizes the sense of indebtedness for any grace or blessing received.
When it was our turn to ask him where the French MERCI for “thank you” comes from, we were all amazed at its unique historical origin. It is not hard to know what MERCI in its Latin roots meant: “misericordia” (a heart in pain), or the experience of pity, compassion, or sharing somebody else’s pain. He said its origin goes back to the medieval times of the Knights who wore heavy metal armors that were cumbersome, and which could make the knight utterly helpless when fallen on the ground. He would have to shout for help, begging for mercy, until someone actually heeds his plea and pulls him up and helps him stand on his feet. To acknowledge indebtedness in such a circumstance is expressed in the French verb REMERCIER (which is to reciprocate mercy.)
He paused after that, seemingly moved by his own reflection. One of my classmates broke the ice by saying, “Je vous remercie, Monsieur.” (Thank you, Sir.). He smiled and then shifted to something inane. “Do you know what the national animal of France is?” Someone answered “the lion?”; another said “bear?” Yet another said, “Eagle?” He gave us a hint by beating his chest and asking, “What animal makes this sound? Co-cori-coooo!”
Suddenly, I thought of the typical symbol which I saw several times during our educational trips on the towers above many French cathedrals: the rooster. The professor pointed at me and said with a thumb up, “Voila!” But we were all laughing because of the way he mimicked the cock. Puzzled, he asked, “What’s wrong? Isn’t that what you hear from the rooster every morning? Co-cori-cooo!”
My American classmate said, “No, sir, in the United States, the rooster says, ‘Cock-a-doodle-dooo!” We all laughed out loud. What does it say in your country? He asked, looking at me. I said, “It depends where. In my province, Pampanga, it says, “Tok-toko-koook!” My Tagalog-speaking classmate said, “No, in my province it says ‘Tik-tilaoook!” The Visayan said, “In my hometown it says “Tuk-tugaoook!” The Ilocano said, “In Ilocos the sound is ‘Tur-turaoook!’
It got even more and more interesting as all our other classmates volunteered their own vocabulary for the sound of a cock crowing. The Japanese said, “It’s ko-keko-koook!” The Spaniard said, “Ki-kiri-kiii!” The Dutch said “Ku-kele-kuuu!” The Portuguese, “Cu-curu-cuuu!”
The experience made it clear to us that language is indeed not just what we say but what we think we hear. I imagine how primitive human beings invented language by mimicking sounds and agreeing together what they hear in order to come up with a shared vocabulary.