At heart I am a geographer. I take particular note of my environment. If I travel to a new place I like to get my bearings quickly. I take note of where the sun rises on the first morning I am there so I can determine where east is and reorient my personal built-in GPS system. I take note of the visible, physical features on the landscape which become my reference points – the hills, the mountains, high rise buildings etc. I find it difficult initially in largely flat, featureless landscape where reference points are absent or not easily seen. Maps are important to me. I like to look at a map to orient myself as to where I am. Once I have done that it becomes a part of me and I can usually determine where I am and the direction I need to go in order to get to a new location, once I have the grid map of the area in my mind. For that reason I have eleven atlases in my library and have added another yesterday through the kindness of a friend. Ten of those atlases are related to the Bible, which is also important to me.
As a linguist I am also aware that language embodies culture. You can gain insight into a culture by looking at the way things are expressed in the language. Even just in simple things like prepositions. Don’t worry I am not going to get grammatical on you. I will keep it simple. Prepositions are exactly as the construction of the word suggests – pre-positions. They are, at least in the English language, words which come before (pre) another word or phrase which act as locatives or locational words (positions). On the table, under the table, before the table, to the table. The prepositions (bold) work either on a two dimensional plane or they can be three dimensional, i.e. up and down, above and below. We all use those words without having to think too much about time and space or geography. We just do it. But when you move to another culture you have to be aware of these little words and how they are being used or it can become confusing.
In most of the world it is normal to talk about going up and going down when we increase or decrease in elevation. We go up a mountain and down a mountain. Similarly we move down south and up north. You would think that is universal. But there is not much that is universal in the world of cultures. When we want to refer to colour in another language we think all we need to do in find out the word for blue and green and black and white and everything will be black and white. Don’t believe it. The system often changes depending on the culture you are in.
Living with the Rongkong people all those standard cultural cues went out the window, if there even were windows. And let me tell you that colour is not perceived the same culturally around the world. Come on Ian, that can’t be true. Blue is blue and green is green and red is red. You just have to learn the new word for a colour and substitute it. Don’t believe it. It is not true. There are cultural differences in colours. Playing Uno with the Rongkong taught me that. We would take Uno cards with us to the villages we lived in or surveyed and would teach the people to play Uno. They loved it but confusion reigned. They learned you played (or put down) Uno cards by following the number or following the colour. So you could change suit or number according to the card you played. However constantly my daughters would complain that a card played was wrong. You can’t play a green card on a tabled blue card unless the number is the same. We soon learned the Rongkong word for blue was [maido]. But the Rongkong word for green was also [maido].
Hang on a moment that can’t be true. There had to be a subtle difference in those words to distinguish blue from green. Maybe green is [maidoh] with a silent [h] or [ma’ido] with a glottal stop. Perhaps the difference was related to vowel length as in [maaido] or [maiido] or perhaps there was a voiceless vocoid in there somewhere like [maiIdo]. There must be something in the pronunciation of the word which is different and thus making the distinction between “blue” and “green”. But after extensive investigation I realized there wasn’t. I tested the range of vowel sounds with the international phonetic alphabet to see if there was minimal pairing between words with vowels not in standard use. No, that wasn’t the answer. On another occasion I took a colour wheel to one village in order to go through the range of colours in the spectrum. Finally, one old man I was working with turned to me and said, “They are the same you fool.”
“No!” How can an entire people group see blue and green as the same colour? I pointed at the sky and said what colour is that? “Maido”. While pointing to tropical rainforest I asked, “What colour is that?” “Maido” of course. Rongkong people as a language group don’t distinguish between blue and green in all of its variety or shades. They are all classified as maido. It came as a shock to me but I soon learned there are other language groups which do the same around the world and not just with the blues and greens.
Now, having made my point, let’s return to geographic terms. Living in the village of Bonelemo, in Southern Kabupaten Luwu I would get confused while learning to speak the language there. If we went further into the interior and up into the hills toward Mount Latimojong we would be going up to Bastem. If we went back downhill to the coastal towns of Bajo and Belopa we were going down. That made sense to me. If we went down to Belopa and then along the coastal road north to Palopo we were going up to Palopo. Yes, that made sense, up North. But when we went from the northern part of the region to Palopo, from either Lena, Limbong or Baebunta we were going up to Palopo. How can you go up south? I would constantly get the preposition I used wrong. It was a frustrating learning experience until I put it all together. Palopo was on the coast. It was down from the mountains or up from the south and up from the north. It was the major governmental administrative city. If the people were going to a government ofiice in Palopo from a northern town they would go down to Palopo. But at other times they would go up to Palopo from the same area. What was the context that was governing whether the preposition was up or down? But no matter which way I looked at it I would get it wrong. Until finally I realized that it depended on which Palopo was in focus. Whether you were thinking of it as the government offices for the region in modern day Indonesia or whether you were considering it as the traditional centre for the ancient Luwu kingdom in which case you went up to it because it was the seat of traditional power. Ah, now I had the key to understanding the prepositions used. You couldn’t go and buy the book on Rongkong Grammar or cultural cues. If anyone were to write such a book it would probably have to be me.
Just like in Israel all went up to Jerusalem and not down south to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the centre of the Kingdom and the pinnacle or highest place as the centre of worship. All went up to Jerusalem. But there is another locational element happening with Biblical terms because places of worship were all in high places. The high places or the peaks or mountains and hills were where the cultic worship centres were placed. In fact the high places is a term synonymous with places of worship to false gods. Hence the importance of placing the Temple in a prominent place at high altitude or on elevated ground. The idea being that the highest place is that which is given to the highest god.
There is something remarkable also in the use of the terms in Hebrew for the four points of the compass. That which we know as north, south, east and west. We read in Gen. 13:14: “And the LORD said to Abram… ‘Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north (צָפֹנָה) and south (נֶגְבָּה), to the east (קֵדְמָה) and west (יָמָּה).’” The Hebrew words for the four directions where Abram was asked to direct his gaze are: “north” צָפֹנָה (pronounced as tsafonah), “south” נֶגְבָּה (negbah), “east” קֵדְמָה (kedmah) and “west” יָמָּה (yamah). In English these words are technical navigational terms, but Hebrew is a language which is linked directly to the physical, so the origin of these words is tied closely to the environment and the things which stand out. But the words or reference points are not only geographic but they are also culturally and historically relevant.
The Hebrew phrase translated as “to the north” צָפֹנָה (tsafonah) – is connected to Mt. Tsaphon in modern Syria, or the Mount of Assembly referred to in Isa. 14:13, which lay to the north of Abram when God told him to look in all directions. In other words it is rooted firmly in the traditional journeyings of Abraham, the Patriarch who started it all by his obedience to the call of G-d. Remember, Abraham the Father of Faith. The Hebrew term נֶגְבָּה (negbah), traditionally translated as “to the south,” literally means “to the Negev” – the name of a wilderness in the south of Canaan / Israel, connected to the ancient journeyings in the wilderness and all the struggle they had come through. The phrase יָמָּה (yamah), translated as “to the west” means “to the sea.” Similarly, קֵדְמָה (kedmah), translated as “to the east,” evokes an image of “going back to something from a time long ago”, namely to the Garden of Eden that God planted in the beginning of history (Gen. 2:8).
When reading or considering a Hebrew text one has to bear in mind multiple reference points to ensure you are picking up on all the nuances of language in the passage. The Hebrew words are not just locational words or words for the four points of the compass. Rather they are strongly linked to Israel’s traditional and historical past where these four words contain a hidden meaning related to the symbolic significance from the context of the first mention or use of these terms. Tsafonah links the Jewish people to the Abrahamic traditions and all that signified. Negbah pointing to the south and the Negev and the time in the wilderness and Egypt and their time of suffering.
Yamah and its link to the sea (yam) and all it symbolizes. Finally Kedmah and it’s link to the Garden of Eden, Pardes and the hint to the Life of the Age to Come which will usher in the reconstitution of life as God originally intended it.
There are many interpretations that are possible. As the ancient rabbis were fond of saying “every verse of the Torah has 70 different facets”. Even if you may think you have it all worked out, there still may be something that confounds you. You may well have to put up with that tension until revelation comes.