Saturday, September 1, 2018

Yes and No

Although most English speakers are completely unaware of it, the way that we respond to questions formulated in the negative is very strange indeed. Let’s say Martha is going to the store and says to me, “Honey, I am going to the store,” but five minutes later she returns to the house. At that point I ask her, “You didn’t go to the store?” (a question formulated in the negative). Now, if Martha did not go to the store, she would reply, “No, I didn’t go to the store.” But if she did go to the store, she would reply, “No, I went to the store.” So whether she went to the store or not, she would answer with the word “No.” (Although the way she says the word “No” will probably be different in each case.) Nevertheless, if I were to ask Martha and say, “You didn’t go to the store?” and she were to reply with the word “Yes,” I would be thoroughly confused! As English speakers, our brains don’t know how to handle it when someone replies with the word “Yes” to a question formulated in the negative.

In Tok Pisin and many other languages of the world, people give the literal, logical answer to the negative question. So, in Tok Pisin, Martha would either reply, “Yes, I didn’t go to the store,” or “No, I did go to the store.” Again, as English speakers our brains cannot handle these types of responses. And I have found it best to avoid asking negatively formulated questions at all, because everytime I do ask one, I regret it. (Interestingly, our children have gravitated toward the Papua New Guinean way of replying to negative questions. It is not uncommon for one of them to answer negative questions in English the way a Papua New Guineans would answer a negative question in Tok Pisin. Again, this makes our brains hurt.) 

In Enga, it is even more complex because there is no word for “Yes”; there is only a word for “No.” So, to say “Yes,” Engans restate the action of the verb in the affirmative. For example, if I were to ask Martha in Enga, “Did you go to the store?” she would reply, “I went.” If she wanted to reply, “No,” she could either say “I didn’t go,” or “No, I didn’t go.” Engans also have shortcuts for the word “Yes.” One shortcut is to utter something in between a grunt and a sigh; the other is to raise one’s eyebrows. I still have trouble with the raising of the eyebrows. Often I find myself repeating a question over and over again when I forget that raised eyebrows means “Yes.” Instead, I think that people have just misunderstood me or perhaps did not hear me.

This makes things difficult when translating Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:37, “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no.’” This is further complicated by the fact that the context of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:37 is his command not to swear any oaths at all. Not only does Enga have no word for “Yes,” but Enga also has no proper word for “Oath.” At first, we translated the idea of swearing an oath as “say that you are speaking very truly,” but we soon discovered that such a translation would not work as Jesus himself frequently says, “Truly, truly, I say to you.” So after much consideration, we translated “swear an oath” as “say the name of something and then say very truly that you will do something.” We found this to be an acceptable translation because swearing an oath usually requires invoking the name of God or something else (such as the saying, “I swear on my mother’s grave”). Having solved the problem of translating “swear an oath,” we were then able to translate Jesus’ words, “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no,'” as “When you say that you will do something, just say that you will do it. When you say that you will not do something, just say that you will not do it.”

Who would ever have thought that the words “Yes” and “No” could cause so many problems in translation work⁈