There’s one in every country

Here’s my latest column from the Malaysia Star.

One of the things we know to be true about all languages is that they all have words for certain concepts and things, like mother, water and moon. The things everyone has, needs, or sees.

There are also words for concepts and things that are less universal, but still widespread.

For example, in New York City there is something called a dollar van, which I’ve mentioned here before. Dollar vans are privately-owned passenger vans that operate along loose regular routes, just like city-run buses. They used to cost only a dollar, thus the name.

However, the same basic idea—a privately owned van or truck serving as public transportation—goes by different names in other countries.

In Haiti, they’re called tap-taps. There, they are often colourfully painted with extravagant scenes, sometimes memorialising a loved one who has died.

In Mozambique, they’re called chapas.

In Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, they’re called matatus.

Another thing that seems to appear in culture after culture (and language after language) is a pride in being slow or late. There are many places in the world where precise times are just guidelines, not absolutes.

It’s a way of saying, “We’re slow and proud of it”, and to make a little bit of fun of one’s community. Admittedly, sometimes these terms are used by unkind outsiders who aren’t accustomed to a carefree attitude towards schedules and deadlines.

In Hispanic cultures, it’s called mañana time. Mañana means tomorrow in Spanish.

In the English-speaking parts of the Caribbean, it’s called island time.

I remember this term well from when I lived on the island of St Croix. “What time is the boat coming?” someone would ask. “Island time,” someone else would answer.

In Rarotonga, a part of the Cook Islands in the Pacific, they call it Raro time.

In Bamfield, British Columbia, they call it Bamfield time.

Throughout Africa, it’s called African time, especially by non-Africans who don’t always mean it in a friendly or understanding way.

In Malaysia, it’s of course called Malaysian time.

I’ve even seen it called doper time, referring to the casual and informal way in which drug dealers and drug users treat the hours of the day. If you’re already breaking the law, breaking the clock is much easier.

Living on mañana time or island time means a store might open or close late. A boat or train is bound to be late. A party might not have any guests until hours after it was supposed to start. Some guests might not show up at all, with no explanation.

One of my favourite word lists that I keep is the name of all the kinds of food that are basically a fried pastry with a vegetable, fruit or meat filling.

In the United States, we have turnovers. Most people know them as being stuffed with fruit (the McDonald’s restaurant chain has particularly sweet ones: good to taste but bad for your waist), although you can also have vegetable turnovers.

The Chinese have what we call pot stickers in English, crescent-shaped little dough-wrapped morsels that can have any sort of vegetable or meat filling, though not fruit.

The British, of course, are known for their pasties. There are also empanadas from Latin America and the related empadas and empadinhas from Portugal and Brazil.

There are samosas from India and patties from the Caribbean. There are also Iranian samboosas and you might even throw in East European pierogies.

In Malaysia, there’s of course, the curry puff.

Not all exactly alike, but, you know, all are filled, fried dough.

My all-time favourite idea for which a lot of languages have a different expression is the term for sunshower, that is, when it is raining and the sun is shining at the same time.

About 10 years ago, Bert Vaux compiled a list of these for the Linguist List and the topic has come up a couple of times on our radio show. I’m always seeing new ones, too.

Lots of cultures think sunshowers have to do with someone, or some animal, having a wedding: devils, hyenas, rats, birds, bears, tigers, foxes, donkeys, jackals, an old woman, a widow.

Some cultures think of it as someone or something giving birth: a deer, a rabbit, a hyena, a fox, a leopard, a wolf. In Armenian, it’s specifically a wolf giving birth on a mountain.

The devil features large in many of these expressions. In the American South, when there’s a sunshower, they might say the devil is beating his wife. They say this, too, in Hungarian. In Dutch, he might also beat his mother. In Jamaica, they say the devil and his wife are fighting over a chicken bone.

In Korea, they might call it a fox rain or a tiger rain.

In Dutch, they say there’s a fair in hell.

In a bunch of places, it’s also called a monkey’s birthday.

Of course, to some people it’s simply hujan panas.

Posted July 23, 2008

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