How language works, foot by foot

photograph of bare feet
What is your name?

People tend to assume that the way things are done in their world—their family, their community, their country—is both right and natural.  Yet someone around the corner may have an entirely different concept of what’s right and natural.

A brief passage in Alexander McCall Smith’s novel The Full Cupboard of Life illustrates provides a delightful example of how that human bias operates in the realm of language.

Though Mma Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, and her assistant use mainly English, both grew up speaking African languages. One day when Mma Makutsi uses the Ikalanga word for foot in the middle of an English sentence, the odd juxtaposition takes her boss by surprise. Mma Makutsi  explains,  “Gumbo is foot in Ikalanga. If you speak Ikalanga, your foot is your gumbo.”

“I see,” said Mma Ramotswe. “That is a very strange word. Gumbo.”

“It is not strange,” said Mma Makutsi, slightly defensively. “There are many different words for foot. It is foot in English. In Setswana it is lonao, and in Ikalanga it is gumbo, which is what it really is.”

Mma Ramotswe laughed.  “There is no real word for foot. You cannot say it is really gumbo, because that is true only for  Ikalanga-speaking feet. Each foot has its own name, depending on which language the foot’s mother spoke. That is the way it works, Mma Makutsi.”

Photo credit: Feet uploaded by rett