By Chris Urton
It was back in October of 2001 in the small village of Igoi that I started my language learning of the Sob language. I learned how to say “What is this?”, “What is that?”, and some other power phrases for language learning.
Lori and I spent 5 weeks in Igoi for that initial stay. We learned names of body parts. We learned names of foods. We learned names of things around the village. And we made our best effort at remembering the names of people which was difficult at times because of their non-Western names. We developed good relationships with people that had names like Toren, Gianime, Iname, Awi, Gunesa, Kwisa and Aike just to name a few.
After our 5 weeks was up and we were scheduled to go back to Madang we chose to take the 6 hour hike out of Igoi to the village of Kikirai where there was a “road” so that someone from PBT could pick us up to take us back to Madang.
Shortly after leaving Igoi, Iname said that she was going to go into her garden nearby and get some sugar cane to eat along the hike. As we waited on the path for Iname to return, I knew that I could practice some of my new language skills when she came back to join us. The Sob language does not have all the pleasantries like English does when requesting something. In English you would say something like, “Please, may I have some sugar cane?”. But the Sob language is much more direct. You would simply say, “Ibe sie.” which translates as “Sugar cane come to me” or “Give me sugar cane.”
Well Iname came back from her garden with a large bundle of sugar cane and I proceeded to tell her, “Ebe sie.”.But she just gave me a strange look and she didn’t give me any sugar cane. I thought to myself “How rude!”
We continued hiking down the path to Kikirai. I watched as others in party were eating sugar cane and I wasn’t. Was there something wrong with our relationship that I failed to get any? Was there not enough to give any to me? I went on trying to understand what had happened.
Then about 45 minutes down the trail I realized what I had done. I had said the wrong word! There was only one letter that I had changed but it changed the meaning greatly. I said “Ebe sie” when I should have said “Ibe sie.” Unfortunately ebe means “breast”. So I had asked for Iname, an early 20 year old female, to give me a breast! No wonder she looked at me strangely when I made the request. I’m glad she didn’t feel obligated to honor my request!
Later that day as I explained my language faux pas we all laughed. And most importantly I laughed at my own mistake. We have to be willing to make mistakes while we learn anything new. Lessons are learned that way. Believe me. I will never mistakenly call sugar cane, ebe, again!
Chris is a Bible translator serving the Sob language group.