I was talking with a family in Nigeria about the just-finished year of initial language learning in Yoruba. They were telling me their experience of learning some of the common phrases and noting some of the different ways of saying things.
They were telling me what they learned for please and thank you. I asked what the Yoruba phrase for please meant. They answered, Well, they said it just means 'please'. But, I persisted to ask them, "What does please mean in English?" They really did not know.
Social Event Meaning
It will help you as a learner to understand the social event meaning of your own English phrases when you learn their equivalents in your new language. Investigate, reflect on the verb concept and social background of common phrases.
I've heard learners ask, "How do you say 'You're welcome'?" This presents the same problem: What does the English phrase "you're welcome" mean anyway? It comes from a medieval phrase, when a traveler would arrive: "You are well come."
We have a similar stock phrase also left over from the olden times: "Hail fellow, well met!") Now we use it to answer a thank you, apparently meaning, "You are welcome to come back and ask again."
How Do You Say Thank You?
When Swahili learners learn to say Asante where they might say Thank you in English, what they really need to ask is "What is the answer to asante?"
Even thank you has a long history of meaning. It is a short formula phrase for "I thank you" or "I give you thanks." So we have two forms: Thank you and Thanks. In modern usage, the latter is normally considered an informal short form of the first. But they are both short forms of older formal phrases.
I Pass – How Many Meanings Can One Word Have?
One last one: "Please pass the ...." This usage of pass doesn't mean the same thing as "He passed me like I was sitting still," or "Did you pass the exam?" In Swahili if you want someone to pass you some food, you say lete ("Bring") or pitisha ("Cause it to pass" -- this one is closer!) or nipitishie ("cause it to pass by me" -- I like this one!).
You see how the concept of the event so greatly affects the phrase? I keep saying language shows you the worldview! The question to ask to elicit a phrase is "What do you say when ...." This leaves your informant free to envision the situation and think what might be said.
Think about the meaning of the English words and phrases you use. Think about the meaning of the event in question. This will help you understand the meaning of the equivalent phrase in your target language.
If you ask "How do you say <English word>" in your language?, this phrase usually just confuses your informant -- and yourself! The concept may not even match! If you think of the event meaning or social meaning, you can more accurately elicit the correct phrase.
First Published in the "Techniques" series in
on Communication Effectiveness, December 1993
This version first posted 9 June 2001
Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © Orville Boyd
Jenkins 1993, 2001
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
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