Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Guatemala Dateline: Interpreting language: cultural reflex, individual machinations

by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register

(From the May 22, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

“That was a very impressive sermon....

“What did he say?”

– Woman of Brittany, of a homily just given by a visiting Irish prelate


Let me tell you about my first Sunday in Guatemala. It was July 1975. At the end of the day’s third Mass, a young man stepped forward and delivered a five-minute, impromptu soliloquy that seemed to have all of the feeling and pathos of the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet. My English interpreter, Msgr. Arthur Mertens, explained that the speech was the community’s way of making me feel welcome.

But I was astonished, nevertheless. For the first time in my life I was being addressed by a person of a very different culture in the context of his culture, and I was unprepared to perform that part for which I was being scripted. This clearly was no “glad to meet ya” Yank leaning over to annex a new acquaintance with his Panzer grasp, or a homo erectus Brit extending out, half-staff, for the briefest, discretest moment, a white and germless hand. This was less greeting than drama — and less drama than liturgical con-celebration. I had been conscripted into a consecratory moment unalloyed by fleshly contact that imposed solemnity as surely as a voice from Heaven, and which pre-empted not only smiling, but the mere thought of it — a solar eclipse of a moment that adjured not only the surrender of my eyes to the lock on them that had been performed by him, but the banishing away of the merest thought of removing them.

If I had to reconstruct his words, they would be something like this: “Dear brother, we are all deeply moved and humbled that you have come to share with us your presence, that you have come here to share with us your love….”

Such must have been the experience, I reflected later, of the ethnologist Scherzer who, on his 1850s visit, described how a speaker pleaded that he inform the people of the City that they, the Caterinecos, were human beings, not four-leggeds.

What would I have given to have had a saint’s empathy at that moment, or lacking that, the stage training to have been able to extract from my eye a single large tear, a la Margaux Hemmingway, in Woody Allen’s film Manhattan.

Anything less that that, it seems to me, would have been inadequate.


Americans, of course (males especially), whose speech style requires us to intersperse, as a kind of hedge, a chuckle, every time that we make a statement, or if not that, some overtone of irony, at least, that would indicate (like the chuckle) that we do not take ourselves all that seriously, and that we do not expect you, either, to say something that would impose empathetic demands, are naturally taken back at such a hedgeless performance as the people here give — as apparently were the European aid administrators of three years back who responded to the speeches of the New Ixtahuacán leaders by delivering so much money ($50,000 multiplied by the number of families) for the town’s reconstruction into their hands that that amount, had it been allotted directly to the people, would have amounted to almost 50 times (again, multiplied by the number of families) local wages for a year ($1,000).

If, as it now appears, they too hastily believed the salesman, one could ask them to look kindly on those who seduced them. Consummate orators not only warm their listeners’ but their own ears in the process.. If this occurred with the Church father Tertullian, as Knox alleges, it could also have happened to them.

Neither could one expect them to turn from speech-makers into hand-shakers — any more than one expect Oral Roberts, on an off day, to speak like a metronome set in the largo position.

I would tell them that for all of the occasions in which I, too, may have been “duped,” that I treasure other, far more significant moments.

• A woman kneeling unsupported in the back of our church. In the classic Maya tradition that harkens back to the inscriptions on the ancient hieroglyphs, she fills the church like an organ as she pours out her heart to our lord in a river of breaking, convulsing cataracts. For two hours she kneels with her tears and with her verse — uninterrupted and unpremeditated verse — verse of uncoagulated and brilliantly sparkling liquation — that begins, each line of it, with anaphora and ends with semantic couplet. Though 10 people might be listening, she is not aware of any of them.
• A man entering a house in which he is unwelcome. The house owner’s daughter has been “stolen” by a neighbour whose father has paid this man to intercede for him. He gives the interloper no chair, no coffee, not even his face to look at. But the visitor speaks, anyway — with the ancient, magical words that the aggrieved man does not even understand. On and on he speaks, using the same anaphora, the same semantic couplets, until the former turns around and, chair in hand, approaches him.
• A woman in the Tzutujil town of San Pedro, kneeling before a screen, and a man on the other side, inclining his head towards it.

She, perceiving that he is white and (she deduces) unable to understand, speaks to God, not to him. Janila mul this, janila mul that — how many times have I sinned with my mother, how many times have I sinned with my father … the confesee, her voice modulating up and down like the most accomplished tele evangelist, says “We are but ulew puqlaj chwach, we uwachulew” – “dust earth on this planet.”

“We are but winaq ri kaqaj ri qamaak” – “people inclined to sin.”

“Wherever we go on our beh (road) –

“Wherever we go on our jok (road) –

“We cannot avoid committing sin.

“I have brought together so much evil, I have brought together so much sin –”

On and on she goes with her couplets until I, summoning the little Tzutujil vocabulary that I have, and raising my voice sufficiently high so as to make itself heard over the din, impertinently interject.

“Not words. Enough words, ma´m. What are your sins?”


As a rather laconically-inclined college student, I remember deploring small talk.

I remember rather superciliously holding forth to a university chaplain one day that the word “idle,” as in we will answer for every idle word (King James version), means inconsequential, not (as the priest correctly pointed out) calumnious.

I believed then that the purpose of talk was to convey information — or, in the case of poetry, beauty in the process.

It never occurred to me that an indigenous society could have a rather different take on the situation.

Berkeley’s Leanne Hinton could have set me straight, had I known her then. For her dissertation, she analysed ritual chanting in a Native American population.

I cannot recall the four purposes of the speech which she delineated, except to say that these purposes have nothing to do with the conveying of information.

Nor are the K’iche, when they sit in front of the parish church exchanging almost formulaically learned sentences (asking, for example, over and over if the other is well or sick and commenting on the desirability of undesirability of either) even thinking of communicating information. This is not “small talk” as an American would understand it, because even in that expression the information aspect of the talk (“small information”) is being highlighted. We could call the Kíche’ activity perhaps “non-talk” (for “no” information) even though they would certainly object and say that what they are doing is momentous.

For them, the mere fact of speaking is important — far more important than what is said. It has a therapeutic purpose, which the great anthropologist Malinowski recognized when he coined the term “phatic” — or contact — language to describe it. Speech might be compared to a physical hug — contact — for a people who generally shun physicality in their sentiments.

Accordingly, for my neighbors, the fundamental misuse of speech is not lying (where the information aspect of speech is highlighted) but yaj — captious or intemperate speech (which subverts speech’s underlying phatic intent) and the confessions here illustrate that. In a culture in which lying is widely accepted, there are 50 sins of yaj confessed for every one of prevarication.


Phatic speech is so important here that any missioner would do well to be aware of it.

If, after so many years, I experience a kind of shock when approached by an American who presents me with his agenda without first “phatically” acknowledging our inter-human dependence, what kind of a shock must a native experience? What kind of shock did my sacristan experience in 1982 when I reduced him to tears after yelling at him?

It would have been less of a scandal had I been caught lying on 10 consecutive occasions.


Linguists of the ethnography of speaking tradition have been attempting to describe the different functions that language has. Dell Hymes lists the referential, the expressive, the poetic, the metalinguistic, the above-mentioned phatic, the directive and the contextual, and notes that for different cultures different aspects are more important.

If clearly, Western society highlights the referential such that a smart-alecky teenager can say, in a clearly sarcastic tone, to his little sister, “that’s a very pretty dress,” and get away with it before his parents (having taken refuge in the default value that our culture assigns to the referential), here he would have a more difficult time. The way in which something is said can have default value over the meaning that any dictionary would assign it.


Anthropologists studying “speech events” in other cultures have made me aware that the Ixtahuacán phatic model of speech is perhaps more basic to human intercourse than the American model of information. I think of the Illongot of the Phillipines who engage in ‘crooked speech’ rhetorical contests in which the contestants vie with one another to make a given point in the most elliptical, obscure manner.


Was the great Goethe on to something when he had his Faust translate the word logos at the beginning of John’s Gospel not as “word,” but “action"?

Be that as it may, missionaries must always strive to give the benefit of the doubt to the people whose culture they inhabit. The K’iche could just as easily attribute obscure “motives” to an American Panzer handshake as the European bearers of dollars insidious motives to the Indians speeches … or their practice of bringing a small gift to the person of whom they are asking a much greater gift.

Such actions are always more likely to be the reflex of a culture than individual machinations.

(Father Baronti, a priest of the Spokane Diocese, has been a missioner in Guatemala for nearly three decades.)

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