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Saturday, April 28, 2007


Language is arbitrary. That was what one of my lecturer said when we talked about the main core of semiotics. There is no reason why one thing is called a certain word. “Let us take the word fuck for example.” He went one saying. That word can be vulgar to swear people, but that can also mean something else, such as very, in a sentence, ‘this food is fucking delicious.”

Last night, before starting our class, my students and I talked about some names that mean one thing in one language, but it doesn’t mean anything in another language. For example, one of the student’s name is Luh Made Setyowati. The word ‘Made’ for Balinese shows the number of that particular person in his/her family (for example if the parents have more than four children). But in English, the word ‘Made’ is the past tense of ‘make’ that means something else.

In 1977 when my family visited our big family in Gorontalo, I got to know a cousin who told me that her nickname was ‘Uyu’. In an instant I laughed because in Javanese, that word means urine (we just need to put letter ‘h’ behind it.) my cousin who was puzzled why I laughed asked me why, but I didn’t dare to explain it to her.

I myself experienced embarrassing thing with my family name, PODUNGGE. Obviously, this word is very difficult to be pronounced by Javanese. Due to that, many children (when I was in elementary school) mocked me (also my siblings) by calling us ‘pongge’. FYI, ‘pongge’ is the name of seed of durian, a special tropical fruit. I remember I regretted very much why my family name was difficult to be pronounced, and why not another which was easier, such as Ismail (one family name in Gorontalo too).

In 1981 when my family moved to a new housing complex, we had a neighbor from Batak whose family name is ‘Sitinjak’. Knowing it, we laughed loudly coz that family name is similar to ‘istinjak’ in Arabic that means process or way someone must do to ‘clean’ himself/herself after doing something; for example a husband and a wife must ‘take a bath’ or junub (Arabic) after ‘doing love sport’. Women must do the same thing after their monthly period is over. A man and a woman are considered in a ‘dirty condition’ after having sex; a woman is also considered ‘dirty’ when having menstruation so that she needs to take a bath after it is over.

I felt more relieved when I knew some more family names that were more weird in my ears (such as Rajagukguk, raja means king, while gukguk is the sound of dog’s bark). To have a family name ‘Podungge’ in fact was not really embarrassing. LOL.

Going back to the language that is arbitrary. One good friend of mine got married in February 2005. Her husband said, “When you deliver our baby, my darling wife, I will give him name TUHAN YANG MAHA ESA.” (It means God the Almighty.) To Indonesian people, this name maybe will offend them, seems like to laugh at the power of God the Almighty. However, TUHAN YANG MAHA ESA means NOTHING for people in other parts of the world who don’t know anything about Indonesian language.

After several months of their marriage, my friend didn’t conceive yet, her husband liked to ask her teasingly, “Where is our TUHAN YANG MAHA ESA? When will he be born?”

To end this article, I want to quote one funny scene in Bajaj Bajuri, one successful comedy serials in Indonesia. When Oneng—one main female character in it—took an English course, she was asked by her foreign teacher. “What is your name?” She was confused how to answer that. She turned to her classmate sitting on the right, asking, “Oneng bahasa Inggrisnya apaan sih?” or “What is Oneng called in English?”

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