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At the end of the words July 26th, 2015 by

Ask almost anyone what language is for and they will say “to communicate”. But they are wrong, of course, because people often communicate without language, and on the other hand, they often use language to complain, negotiate, and affirm identity, far beyond blunt communication.

Let me give you an example. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the money changers sit together in groups of three to six people, clutching a purse stuffed with as much as $6,000 in cash. Being in a group offers them some safety, or at least the feeling of safety from the robbers who occasionally snatch one of the fat, little purses.

To manage competition, the money changers take turns doing business, but they also look for excuses to jump in ahead of each other. This requires some negotiation.

The other day I walked up to some money changers, sitting on a busy street by a bridge. They eyed me from under the brims of their wide hats and when I met the gaze of the one on the end, she waved a little pack of bills at me, with a hopeful expression on her face. That much of the deal was non-verbal, and I could have feasibly traded my $20 bill with her without language.

The money changer assumed that I knew that $20 was worth 138 Bolivianos and she wanted me to give her two coins, so she could save her small change. She politely asked for two Bolivianos.

“I don’t have any coins,” I said, honestly.

She gave me what looked like her last handful of coins. Then in an angry stage whisper she said “nanashawan” which is Quechua and means “he is hurting me”. That bit of theater was intended for the other money changers, so that they would think that this deal was painful to her. They probably knew she was still making money, but she was already starting to bid for her next turn in line. The money changer had switched languages, from Spanish to Quechua, not to communicate, but to hide information from the customer, and to aim it at her competitors/collaborators.

In the 1980s when I lived in a country parrish in Portugal, I was struck by the language of courtesy. The back lands between the old granite houses and the fields were laced together with rough footpaths. People said something to absolutely every person they passed on the path. “Even a dog deserves a greeting,” they explained, only half joking. The greeting was often more than a simple hello. One person would guess what the other was up to.

A person might say “Are you coming from stacking straw?” if they saw someone with bits of the dried yellow stalks of hay still in her hair. Or “you have been digging potatoes,” if the person was covered in earth and was carrying a basket of tubers.

“Yes,” the second person would say. Additional information was optional, and often omitted. Folks were usually in a hurry.

The first person would always end the greeting by saying “It must be; it must be.” (Tem que ser; tem que ser).

The two neighbors on the path were not using language to communicate what kind of work they had been doing; they already knew that. They were speaking to reaffirm a relationship.

And sometimes the opposite happened, communication was wordless. I recall a hard working farmer named David Antunes. I had spent the day helping him, his wife and two teenaged sons thresh rye with a hand cranked machine. Near sunset we moved the heavy, wood-and-steel thresher. The chickens were ranging free, chasing each other all over the stone threshing floor to get the best bits of fallen grain. The machine accidently fell onto one of the half-grown chickens, crushing it to death.

David picked it up. He could have said “be more careful next time”, or he could have flung the chicken away in anger, or he could have buried it, or fed it to the pigs. But he didn’t. No one said a word, watching, waiting to see what David would do. He simply put the dead chicken in his wife’s hands. It wasn’t quite big enough to eat, but she cooked it, and that night we ate it for dinner.

In agriculture, extensionists try to use language to communicate with smallholder farmers, who usually fail to be convinced at the first go, because farmers know as well as anyone that language not only communicates, but is often used to deceive or exaggerate.

A good video helps to overcome the limits of language. For the farmers in the audience, the farmers on the screen are more believable than someone from town. Also, the video shows people working and trying out new ideas, which is more convincing because it shows that “this practice is so functional that real farmers somewhere actually tried it”. Seeing is what linguists call “the visual channel,” a second layer of information added to language, and reinforcing it, like showing a money changer that you have $20, not just telling her about it.

So while language is rarely just for communication, it can be. But you have to work at it, and learn to speak the language of your audience.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

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