One of my best friends proofreads for a living but even she isn’t a grammar Nazi. She recognizes that a language serves the primary function of communication and that grammar and word choice must support that. When we change spellings and punctuation to suit convenience or trends or use words with meanings we’ve stretched to meet our desires, we need to be sure that we’re achieving our primary goal–being understood!
The Indonesian language is a synthesized language, developed by the Dutch to enable communication in a country comprised of 17,000 islands (6,000 or so being inhabited) with over 300 major languages and hundreds of dialects. Bahasa Indonesian (literally language Indonesia) only came into being in 1945 and it was developed from Malay with many Dutch words and much simplified grammar. It was created to be easy to learn and while less than 7% of Indonesians speak it as a mother tongue it is widely used. One of the features of Indonesian for example is that there are no irregular plurals. No child->children for example. In Indonesian plurals are made by simply repeating the word: child-child = children.
During my trip to Indonesia I would often have dinner from street vendors. Fellow travelers often shunned the street vendors claiming that the food wasn’t as clean. In one restaurant I peaked into the kitchen and wasn’t impressed by the sanitary procedures and figured that if the street vendor drops some of my food on the ground at least one of the roaming dogs would probably pick it up before he got a chance to. Plus you got to watch him stir-fry your noodles and add spices.
Being a white tourist it was challenging to get food that was prepared authentically. This was just fine for my traveling partner. If they wanted to make the food less spicy just for her, that was great. I’ve never been too afraid of a few chilies so I would have to explicitly ask each time we ordered: “make mine spicy please.”
One evening I went on my mission to gather dinner. I approached a soup vendor (why not soup? It was only 95°F with about 1000% humidity….) who was rather busy and waited my turn. He was chatting happily with one of his customers while preparing soup. He would take one of his bowls from the rack where his partner had placed them after rinsing them in a bucket of water that had been used for countless bowls already and ladle soup into it. Next he would dip a big spoon into a jar of pickled, finely cut, vegetables and chilies, lift it out, shake it off a bit to level it out and dump this in the bowl and stir it around. he topped this off with some fried noodles and handed it over, chatting the whole while, to a waiting customer.
I placed my order in carefully annunciated English “two soups, please. One plain and one spicy.” But he was still chatting and I couldn’t tell if he was listening at all. It had been a difficult to get this across to other vendors and I was tired of getting bland dishes so I repeated with a bit more assertiveness “two soups. One for tourists and one spicy.” Following that last “spicy” was a tiny pause where he looked up and finally appeared to be paying attention so to be sure I repeated “spicy” once more and he nodded. Finally, I thought, I’ve gotten through and we’ll be having our soup soon.
I watched and waited while he made more soups for his Indonesian customers. Always the same procedure. Ladle the soup, dip the spoon, shake off the excess, dip in the bowl and stir and then top off with fried noodles. He then prepared a bowl without dipping into the chili mix at all. For his next bowl he ladled as usual and dipped the spoon into the chili mix as usual but this time, there was no shaking off the excess. Into the bowl it went with a quick stir. The spoon quickly returned for a second visit to the chili mix and another unshaken heaping spoonful was dumped into the bowl. Fried noodles topped it off and, smiling, he handed over two bowls of soup pointing at one of the steaming concoctions and saying “spicy” through a toothy grin made even brighter by his dark brown skin.
I returned to the dusty step where my partner was waiting and handed her the plain soup. I knew I was in trouble before I tasted mine. After just a few spoonfuls the sweat started to drip from my forehead. As a struggled through this burning bowl of fire it threatened to become never-ending because my sweat was now pouring off my face and sometimes dripping right back into the bowl. I’d ordered the soup, so I was going to eat it! I didn’t want to have to return to the vendor sheepishly admitting that I was just like all the other tourists and couldn’t handle it! I looked ridiculous. Bathed in sweat and unable to taste anything but lava on a spoon I continued sipping until I drained the bowl while my traveling partner laughed the whole time and reminded me how tasty her soup was. Hers was a little spicy she told me, but not too much. Her toothy grin didn’t have as much contrast with her fair skin as the soup vendor but it seemed just as evil now. I wondered if I’d ever be able to taste anything again. Can capsaicin do real damage to the linings of your digestive tract if you have too much?
I’ll never know whether he was trying to teach some westerner a lesson or whether that second “spicy” was simply interpreted as “spicy-spicy” a plural and we was just accommodating my wishes but the story still reminds me to speak carefully. Otherwise I might really get burned.