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Grandpa’s Girl and the Dictionary


Grandpa’s Girl and the Dictionary

My maternal grandfather was a talented writer and orator. Palauan words flowed from him the same way I pretend English words flow from me. As far as the Palauan language is concerned, Salvador Ongrung was my hero. I never had the good fortune to meet him in person, but he was the reason I loyally purchased international calling cards throughout my high school years.

My grandfather inspired in me– via handwritten letters and telephone calls– a strong fascination with the Palauan language. I want to mold and manipulate Palauan words into humorous narratives and thought-provoking essays. But first, I need to improve my vocabulary and grammar skills.

I recently borrowed a Palauan-English dictionary, the Lewis Josephs version, from my niece. As a child, I loved reading the dictionary. It’s a practical, if not amusing way, to expand one’s vocabulary. I read through this very dictionary once as a child, but apparently I missed a great deal of hilarity the first time around.

I don’t know if anyone here has taken the time to read through the dictionary lately, but I happen to find it entertaining. Between the usage of proverbs as samples sentences and the dictionary editors’ compulsion to make jokes about Ngerchelong– it’s proving pretty difficult to put this dictionary down.

Proverbs are an awesome way to learn language and also to learn about a culture. You can learn a lot about a culture just by looking at the common subjects and meanings of their proverbs. Take the word MELEMDEM, meaning “to level, equalize…calm.” The sample sentence is a proverb I heard as a kid: “A UNGIL MERREDER A UA CHULL EL MELEMDEM ER A DAOB.” This sentence translates to: a good leader is like rain that calms the ocean.

Based on this proverb, we can infer two pretty important things about the Palauan culture: (1) it’s a strong sea-faring culture and (2) diplomacy in leadership is a culturally-valued trait. The proverb implies that a leader should be a person who can calm down disputes and settle problems. Pretty nifty, right?

There’s lots of proverbs throughout the dictionary, which is like a study in linguistics, anthropology and sociology all in one. It’s the kind of thing I thrive on… Well… That (and ukaeb) and unexpected hilarity

While perusing through the dictionary with my nephew and cousin, we noticed something a little odd about the sentences and explanations in the dictionary. It would appear that the editors of the dictionary found Ngerchelong to be a hilarious target for their jokes. I don’t know who the editors were, or their ties to Ngerchelong– but there’s definitely something there.

The word BEACHED is defined as “tin, tin roofing, tin can,”  and is an excellent example of the several Ngerchelong-targeted jokes. The sample sentence is “A RECHAD ER A NGERCHELONG A SORIR A BEACHED.” This translates to “people from Ngerchelong like tin cans.”

If you’re Palauan, or have spent ample time around Palauans, you’ve likely heard this joke. The dictionary explains the joke by saying that “people from Ngerchelong (are so backward and isolated from the modern world that they) like (to collect) tin cans (out of curiosity.)”

My nephew and my cousin, both proud men from Ngerchelong, threatened to set the dictionary on fire.

I, for the record, was informed– by my father– that people from Ngerchelong collect tin cans because they were into conservation and the environment long before it was trendy. “Ea rungalek, a rechad er a Ngerchelong INVENTED the Green Revolution!” I like that reasoning better and choose to accept it as the truth.

So here I am, the Native Ex-Pat come home… And, clearly, I’m a nerd. I’m the kind of girl who’d rather spend her minimal free time with her nose in a book. I don’t own a television and don’t plan on owning one in the foreseeable future. Seriously though– I’m reading the dictionary for fun. I don’t know how this is going to affect my social life here in Palau, but it’s definitely a good attribute to have in the pursuit of linguistic excellence and literary artistry. All the while, it makes me feel a little bit closer to my Grandpa Bador.

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