How to Ask for a Drink in Subanun.

I was looking for something else (as I usually am) when I found my old copy of The Pleasures of Anthropology, edited by Morris Freilich; I opened it curiously and realized it’s one of the many books I bought because it looked interesting and never got around to reading. Naturally I turned to the section Human Communication, and was immediately drawn to “How to Ask for a Drink in Subanun,” by Charles O. Frake (American Anthropologist 66.6, Part 2 [Dec. 1964]: 127-132); the first couple of paragraphs are thought-provoking enough I thought I’d reproduce them here:

WARD GOODENOUGH (1957) has proposed that a description of a culture — an ethnography — should properly specify what it is that a stranger to a society would have to know in order appropriately to perform any role in any scene staged by the society. If an ethnographer of Subanun culture were to take this notion seriously, one of the most crucial sets of instructions to provide would be that specifying how to ask for a drink. Anyone who cannot perform this operation successfully will be automatically excluded from the stage upon which some of the most dramatic scenes of Subanun life are performed.

To ask appropriately for a drink among the Subanun it is not enough to know how to construct a grammatical utterance in Subanun translatable in English as a request for a drink. Rendering such an utterance might elicit praise for one’s fluency in Subanun, but it probably would not get one a drink. To speak appropriately it is not enough to speak grammatically or even sensibly (in fact some speech settings may require the uttering of nonsense as is the case with the semantic-reversal type of speech play common in the Philippines. See Conklin 1959). Our stranger requires more than a grammar and a lexicon; he needs what Hymes (1962) has called an ethnography of speaking: a specification of what kinds of things to say in what message forms to what kinds of people in what kinds of situations. Of course an ethnography of speaking cannot provide rules specifying exactly what message to select in a given situation. If messages were perfectly predictable from a knowledge of the culture, there would be little point in saying anything. But when a person selects a message, he does so from a set of appropriate alternatives. The task of an ethnographer of speaking is to specify what the appropriate alternatives are in a given situation and what the consequences are of selecting one alternative over another.

Ward Goodenough was an important anthropologist; I note with bemusement that that Wikipedia article gives one pronunciation in IPA and a different one in the respelling of his (superb) surname, and someone who knows which is correct should fix it. The Subanon (Wikipedia’s preferred spelling) live in the Zamboanga peninsula area of Mindanao Island, Philippines; they speak, obviously, the Subanon language. And Stan Carey’s recent post The Speech Community seems relevant.


  1. Bathrobe says

    Just as getting a PhD needs more than just knowledge. You need to walk the walk and talk the talk. Language has never been just about grammar, despite Chomsky.

    Just how DO you go about getting a drink in Sunanun?

  2. If you are invited to drink, you accept the invitation by saying naa, A, sep pa u, lit. ‘well, A, I will be drinking’, where A is a proper form of address for the person who invited you.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    If someone offers you water on entering a Kusaasi house (which they will), and you say “Water is good”, you won’t get any.

  4. SFReader says

    Just how DO you go about getting a drink in Sunanun?

    According to my English-Subanon phrasebook, you say:

    Pinumon u pa nog tubig. Bogayan u pa nog tubig.

  5. SFReader says

    And in Subanon translation of Gospel of John, Jesus asks Samaritan woman for a drink using this phrase:

    Begayay mau di tubig kiin

  6. Bathrobe says

    Well if you say 水は結構です mizu wa kekkō desu ‘water is fine’ in a Japanese household you won’t get any either, depending on intonation, sentence-final particles, etc.

    I assume if you say tubig ! in Subanun and look desperately thirsty you’ll get some.

  7. SFReader says

    my old copy of The Pleasures of Anthropology, edited by Morris Freilich

    Read that as The Pleasures of Anthropophagy

    Was scared for a moment

  8. Lucy Kemnitzer says

    I’ve left a note at Wikipedia, but I don’t know if I need a proper citation for the pronunciation of Ward Goodenough’s name. It’s pronounced just like the English words “good enough.” He was my father’s teacher (and so was Dell Hymes, cited in the article) and so I heard his name a lot, and spoke to him (I was between 11 and 14 at the time, so I don’t have a lot to offer beyond this).

  9. Here is a movie of Goodenough speaking at a 1999 conference. If you can find a program that plays RealMedia files you probably hear his name being said, maybe even by himself.

  10. It’s pronounced just like the English words “good enough.” He was my father’s teacher (and so was Dell Hymes, cited in the article) and so I heard his name a lot, and spoke to him

    Thanks, that’s Goodenough for me!

  11. If someone offers you water on entering a Kusaasi house (which they will), and you say “Water is good”, you won’t get any.

    So what should you say if you’d like some?

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    “Yes, thank you.”

    You can then embark on the serious business of exchanging greetings, by asking individually after the health of all the family members, distant relations and treasured pets, and responding to the same questions in reverse.

    For the foreign learner, this has the great advantage that you can keep up a whole conversation for about a quarter of an hour with a total vocabulary of about twenty words. Thirty, if you want to show off.
    At this stage, the answer is always “He/she/it/they is/are very well.” Whether they are or not.

  13. There must be a different answer if the individual has died, at least. (This past winter I had four pets, admittedly some more treasured than others, die within a span of six weeks.)

  14. “They are very well, just resting.”

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    It reminds me, now I think of it, of the old definition of a bore: someone who, if you ask how he is, will actually tell you.
    (This may be a Brit thing …)

  16. marie-lucie says

    Is this about asking for a drink or accepting it? If your polite host or hostess offers you water (or something else), you will probably accept it (or refuse it if that is not insulting), but at that point you don’t need to ask.

    I was wondering why several of you quoted Water is good as a poor response in Subanun or Japanese if you actually mean Yes, thank you. To my ear this sentence sounds like a statement of fact, like Water is necessary for life or so, and until I knew better, I myself would probably not have given you any water since to me this sentence does not imply acceptance and I would wonder why you said it. Not every culture would take this to mean Yes, I will accept water (but perhaps I was hoping for something else, or I am answering perfunctorily), as in American English. It took me a while to figure this out!

  17. My understanding was that “water is good” in the Kusaal context is not a random response that confuses people and makes them not give you water even if you wanted some, but the expected response if you want to decline the offer. It looks to me like a polite way of declining without openly saying “no”.

  18. “They are very well, just resting.”

    No, that’s what you say if the person is an unemployed actor.

    Realistically, you would already know that and wouldn’t mention them. Such it is to live in a high-context culture. I’m lucky if I even find out when someone in the next apartment building dies.

    the old definition of a bore […] This may be a Brit thing …

    J.S. Mill spoke of “the English mode of existence, in which everybody acts as if everybody else (with few, or no exceptions) was either an enemy or a bore.” He was contrasting it with the French just after the revolution. R.W. Emerson gave us the American perspective: “The borer on our peach-trees bores that she may deposit an egg; but the borer into theories and institutions and books, bores that he may bore.”

  19. marie-lucie says

    Thank you Hans, I had not thought of that interpretation. I guess it means something like “I agree that water is good and would accept it in different circumstances”.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Hans is right. It’s the standard response for politely declining. It’s not a normal interpretation for “Water is good” out of context, but the whole thing is a formalised exchange: “Shall I bring water?” is the first thing you say to a guest; it’s a perfectly genuine offer, but there’s nothing rude about turning it down. Politely.

    Saying “no” is actually quite rude in any context in Kusaal, unless you’re on tutoyer-like terms with the person you’re talking to. It’s a cultural thing, and works just the same when people are speaking English. It’s pretty much out of the question to say “no” to a superior (or a guest); it took me quite a while to tumble to this, and to appreciate that if I actually wanted to know what was going on I had to carefully frame questions in such a way that people could tell me the right answer without also telling me that I was mistaken. Much exciting cultural misunderstanding ensued …

  21. Basically the same in Japanese, except that, with the right intonation and sentence ending, it could mean “Water would be good”.

  22. A classic! I still use it in my classes…

  23. I’m delighted to hear it!

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