On and Off

Yesterday I pondered whether, if I fell off my donkey in last night’s donkey basketball game I would fall off my ass or on my ass. The answer came as I discussed this with several people. I would be on my ass, either on or off my ass.

It is common among interculturalists to describe a person’s fluency in a foreign language in terms of their mastery of numbers and prepositions. One could say that quantities and relationships are the bones of society: How many and how do they relate? These two elements are profoundly influenced by culture. One might imagine that numbers are “hard science,” and are not susceptible to cultural variation, but close examination proves that is not the case. The Waorani people of eastern Ecuador have 4 words for numbers: one, two, three and lots. The Tsachi people with whom I was raised have 6, after which they borrow from Spanish until they get to 1o and 20, for which they have their own words. In another vein, ancient Israel’s relationship with God was always and never anything but communal. The individual, the “one” had meaning only in terms of the many.

Relationships, of course, are much more obviously culturally determined. In our Book of Common Prayer a phrase from Morning Prayer in English reads, “Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.” In Spanish it reads, “Ni se arranque la esperanza a los pobres.” (Neither may the hope of the poor be wrenched [from] them.” The preposition best translated “from” is also used for the opposite, “to,” as in “voy a la casa.” (I’m going to the house.) Yet in Spanish the meaning is powerfully poignant and the meaning is close enough to the English for bilingual people to recognize each in the other.

When it comes to human relationships these two elements are of foundational importance. There is no relationship with 1, only with more than 1. We cannot continue to delude ourselves that we can exist alone. Walls as quickly keep people in as out. The prepositions we use to describe our relating are hugely telling. Do we go to or from? Do we live with or without? Do we stand close or far? Are we walking toward or away?

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