Meanings of words

I have been told that there is a tribe in South America which has 40 words to differentiate shades of what we might, in a single word, describe simply as ‘green’. And in a country without sign posts they use these shade words to direct people on forest paths. For example travel on the path for …. (distance) until you see a tree of …. (shade of green) then turn left. in about …. (distance) you will see a bush of …. (shade of green) there turn right. etc – you get the idea. No doubt this has worked well for centuries and still does, but what a mess a traveller would be in if someone purposefully substituted the word for a different shade of green.

I wonder how many shades of green are in this area of Ethiopian countryside?

I looked up ‘shades of green’ on google search and the list is long and interesting. Usually just saying green is enough but sometimes we need to be more specific. And this applies to many other words. And we can get into or cause trouble by unintentionally or intentionally using a shade of meaning which the speaker or author didn’t intend. There are about a million words in the English language but I am told that the average word usage of the common person is only in the thousands – 10 to 20,000. I looked up the word ‘guilty’ in google search. This is part of what I read…

guilty/ˈɡɪlti/ Learn to pronounce adjective

  1. culpable of or responsible for a specified wrongdoing.”he was found guilty of manslaughter” Similar: culpable, to blame, blameworthy, blameable, at fault, in the wrong, responsible, answerable, accountable, liable, censurable, reproachable, condemnable, reprehensible, erring, errant, delinquent, offendings, felonious, iniquitous, criminal, convicted, peccant
  2. Opposite:innocent.
    • justly chargeable with a particular fault or error.”she was guilty of a serious error of judgement”
    • conscious of, affected by, or revealing a feeling of guilt.”he felt guilty about the way he had treated her “Similar: ashamed, guilt-ridden, conscience-stricken, remorseful, sorry, regretful, contrite, repentant, penitent, rueful, abashed, shamefaced, sheepish, hangdog, mortified, discomfited, distressed, uncomfortable, in sackcloth and ashes, compunctious. Opposite:unrepentant

Let us say that the little baby pictured above died. That is not true, he did very well after his emergency surgery. He recovered quickly and was sent home well, but with a lot of growing up to do. But picture this scenario: –

He came in with an obstructed gut. He was operated upon and the condition corrected. On being woken up from his anaesthetic he vomited, inhaled his vomitus, but after that treated well according to the book but over the next 24 hours dies. A distraught parent accuses me of killing the baby and says that they hope I feel well and truly ‘guilty’. Should I feel guilty? I had made the correct diagnosis and done the right operation. My name was still on the end of the bed as the responsible surgeon. I had seen him and ordered several things post operatively. I was not the anaesthetist. Measures should have been taken by the anaesthetist to reduce the risk of him vomiting to a minimum, which he did not take. But I was by then in a side room writing up the case record. The mistake having been made I raced back into the operating room and did all I could to correct the situation.

But that accusation is that I have killed him and should feel guilty. I don’t think that it is fair to say that I have killed him, even if in a court the lawyers would have tried hard to push that all the responsibility of the anaesthetist fell back on me as the team leader so….? Now coming to the guilty word I have to confess that maybe I should feel guilty. I’ve seen that anaesthetist make similar mistakes before and because it was after midnight and I was tired I chose to do what was legal but maybe not wise i.e. do the rest of my legal paperwork and hopefully get home to bed. I had previously spent time on several occasions explaining the right way and watched him through several operations. I had since then stayed in the room on several occasions making sure that he did the waking up procedure correctly. But he was still relatively inexperienced. Because of the hour should we have waited until the morning, accepting that he may have died overnight and would certainly have been medically worse by the next day. If everyone had rested he might have lived and grown up to be a healthy man.

Would that label me guilty? I understand why the parents did, and I have to struggle hard to say that I bear no guilt. But I reject that I should feel guilty of murdering him or even of having done the wrong thing. Surely there must be a synonym in there for my feelings at this moment. Blameable? – but surely it is not my responsibility to do someone else’s work correctly. Ashamed? – because in the world there is such inequity between what we have in my home country cf my adopted land. Remorseful? – that I didn’t stay in the operating room until the child was wide awake. But then I knew that the post-op care workers often slept on their duty time – so should I have watched him overnight? Am I to bear the whole weight of the medical inadequacies on my shoulders.

Often when I use a word I have to depend on my reader/hearer to discern the context into which I am using it. It is not easy for the user or the recipient of a word to be sure of the correct meaning and I guess we have to settle for being honest, generous and understanding in our assessments.

Auguste Rodin | The Thinker (Le Penseur) | French | The Metropolitan Museum  of Art

Dominic Cartier

If only….

The picture below is the one on the front of my autobiography. It was taken in the mid 90’s in Soddo, Ethiopia. I developed a fairly close relationship with the boy who is walking with me. He was deaf and dumb. There was a blind school nearby but he wasn’t blind. There wasn’t anywhere near to help him. In my early days there before we got a vehicle, I often walked past his home going between our home and the hospital. If only I hadn’t had an already heavy schedule…. but had the chance to meet the family and know more about him. I got to hear his story from the workers and did my best to be a friend to this little guy isolated in an overpopulated area inside his silent world. So we’d walk together sharing a chocolate bar, pointing out things that interested us, but sadly absolute silence. If only we’d known ‘signing’ …. Our home was about a kilometre beyond his and when I was walking home he’d walk with me but then after a while suddenly break off and run home to his area of safety. 

Then we bought an old 4WD and as I drove past he would climb up on my knee and steer for maybe half a kilometre before tapping my arm to stop, hop out and run home. I think that either his playmates indicated that I was coming or he, being deaf and dumb, appreciated the vibrations from the car transmitted through his feet. At any rate it was rare for me not to see him coming to the side of the road, waiting for me as I drove past. When we left Soddo one of the saddest things was leaving him. He did not have an intelligence problem, and hopefully as things progress medically in the land, he will get help. If only I’d been able to find an appropriate school…

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I did meet him again several years later when I visited the Soddo area again. He ran up to me with a very broad smile but scratching himself all over. He was covered with scabies. The diagnosis was easy and the treatment relatively cheap, but not all that easy, as it involved bathing and washing clothes. Having worked there just a few years earlier I quickly worked out how much to get him seen, and medicine ordered, then added a little for inflation and gave it to one of the hospital staff to sort out. I was told that after I had left the pharmacy had been privatised and costs adjusted (in)appropriately. Thus the money which I was offering was now insufficient to even get him a card to be seen. I added more, but had to leave and am not sure who prospered from my money, the boy or the one sent on an errand. If only I’d been able to stay and look after him myself….

Life has so many ‘if only‘ situations. You’d go mad if you held onto them too tightly.

A little about the Amharic language

Amharic is the language of the Amharas, one of the major tribes of Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie (The power of the Trinity) was an Amhara and sought to make it and English the main languages of Ethiopia. French was, for a while, a popular alternative and a number of words in modern Amharic also come from the Italian invasion. There are apparently 83 languages in Ethiopia giving rise to about 200 dialects. Ge’ez is the old language of the Orthodox Church and introduces the ‘ in the middle of a word to indicate a glottal stop.

To show how different these tribal languages are I will give four greetings with a rough English translation. I will use our script to give an idea of how they sound

  • Amharic greeting is classically Tenastilygn – a shortened form of the sentence Igzeehabeeyer Tena Yisterlygn  – May God give you health for me.
  • In Oromifa – Neggaa, Fiya, Errga – Hello, how are you, it’s nice to smell you. In this situation I think the ‘smell’ is conceptually ‘to have your presence with us’.
  • In Wolaitata – Sero Lo’oo Lo’oo Fiedaitey – Hello, How are you., nice to see you.
  • In Hadeyan – Tuuma, Tuuma. Hello, hello!

Haile Selassie attempted to make Amharic the common Ethiopian language and it was taught in primary and secondary school with English being added later in primary school. English was the official language of tertiary education. After Haile Selassie was murdered the era of Mengistu HaileMariam (The kingdom of the power of Mary) sought to elevate other tribal languages with English as the second language, leaving Amharic for the Amhara tribe. It is thought by many that, whereas Haile Selassie was seeking to unite the country, Mengistu was seeking to divide the tribes to make the country easier to rule.

3 languages
Above the sign is in Oromifa which uses the Roman script and a lot of doubling of letters eg baanke. In the middle Amharic, And below English. Addis Ababa is officially a Federal State but used to be Oromo territory so that comes first and Amharic is in smaller letters.

Certainly when I went back after the overthrow of Mengistu I experienced some trouble from this. I was living in the Wolaita area and patients coming from the Hadeyan area only 40 km down the road could frequently not be understood by the staff. The present government seems to now have a three language policy.

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The 3 languages used here are symbols, Amharic and English. In voting, because so many are illiterate each party has a symbol to show the voters whom they should choose. I never saw a radar gun on that road!

In Amharic there are two ‘t’s – both normal for them but with very different meanings. Also with ‘k’s and ‘ch’s  differences which we describe as soft or explosive. You can get into real trouble. I was in the bank with a couple of friends and our business was drawn out. I said to my friends  ‘Chiger alle?’ thinking I was saying ‘is there a problem?’ but actually saying ‘do you have pubic hair?’ Embarrassing for them and for me, when it was explained. But their letters are written differently and so easily read but not easily heard by us, who think anything like a ‘t’ sound is in fact a ‘t’. In Amharic ‘sebake’ and ‘sebake’, depending on how you sound the ‘k’  means a ‘preacher’ or ‘a bearer of false tales’.

In English we have many letters and letter groups with same or different meaning. We spell Monday with an ‘o’ and say it with a ‘u’. We have the ‘ou’ and say it differently in the following – cough, mouse, tough, through – and pronounce it differently in each word. We have the one letter eg ‘t’ and pronounce it differently in different words. The ‘t’ in tough and the ‘t’ in take are made with the tongue in very different places. Or more significantly the ‘c’ in cat and centipede. Say them and see how your tongue is in a different position for each. We have f’s and ph’s which sound the same. In some of the languages you don’t differentiate p’s and f’s, so people, when they speak in English  go to fray or pray at church; they wear certain clothes either because it is the new fashion or new pashion, without recognising the difference. In Amharic if you know the syllabet you can read it with the correct sound even if you maybe cannot understand it!

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The fidel is not really an alphabet but a syllabet. The second line is basically the ‘l’ sound but the seven syllables as go across from left to right are le,lu, lee, laa, ley, li, lo. There are 238 basic syllables and another 79 special ones, punctuation marks and numbers.

I once told a patient that, as I had spent hours fixing the problems which his venereal disease had caused, ‘that if you have sex with anyone apart from my wife after this, I will kill you!’ I used the sound for my instead of the one for your. Fortunately he spoke in Oromifa and after my Amharic speaking fellow workers got up from the floor, having ceased rolling around in laughter, they translated what I had meant to say!

Learning another language is always a challenge and we all make mistakes!

Dominic Cartier