I remember what struck me most when I was out there was the profound difference in language. It was really quite educating to hear the somewhat primitive, but nevertheless entirely unique dialect they had developed. You can travel to most parts of Europe today and still recognise the occasional stem of a word, familiar sounds and accentuations that remind you of a shared heritage, but there, it really felt like you were in a different world.
Of course this caused some difficulty, particularly around the beginning of my stay. I can recall more than one instance when the chief and I spent hours of furious gesticulation to convey the most trivial of messages. It was after one such discourse, when I had spent the best part of the evening meal explaining why my men said grace before eating, that I finally resolved to make a concerted effort to teach the tribe some English.
Luckily I had some previous experience teaching boys Latin back home so the prospect of imparting a new language to what one could hardly describe as willing students was not a totally foreign prospect. And though at first a few struggled with some of the more bothersome consonants, I was pleasantly surprised with the speed with which they began to pick up new words and phrases. Unfortunately I had brought little literary material from England to draw from except for a rather tired looking New Testament and a copy of “Robinson Crusoe”. I made do all the same, and soon had the whole tribe able to recite the Christmas story by heart, though I doubt very much if any of them truly understood it. I decided against employing my other text, fearing some of the parallels with my own situation may have aroused misconceptions amongst the natives.
I was aware, however, of the inevitably limited mental capacity of this previously uneducated people, so tended to keep the subject of my lessons to a primarily domestic nature. There were though a few especially eager pupils, strapping lads just ripening to the cusp of maturity, who would stay with me long after the rest of the class had dispersed, craving further instruction. I rewarded their interest with additional linguistic nuggets far beyond the practical founding of their companions. I gave them titles, tools, even taught them to sing “God Save the Queen” (though I am ashamed my recollection of the latter verses was patchy and so their rendition was somewhat truncated).
What they really loved though, was when I went out of the village with them into the jungle and they would point at the plants and animals and I would tell them what they were. We would spend hours trampling through vines and foliage and I would call out “tree”, and then they would repeat my refrain in their crude chorus of voices. It did strike me occasionally the immense power I held in this respect. With no greater authority to challenge my instruction, they obediently would have swallowed whatever absurd labeling I gave to their home, oblivious to its falsity. There was one instance in fact, when I did meet some resistance. We had just come to a quiet clearing when I spotted a mouse, scampering about on the ground. Though no variety indigenous to Europe, I was nonetheless certain of this rodent’s description and so, putting my finger to my lips, I pointed and said very quietly, “Mouse.” But they did not reply, they simply stood, dumbfounded, looking at me with a miscomprehension that for a moment made me perhaps question if I had not been mistaken.
“No,” one of them eventually mumbled, “that Omi.”
A murmur of consent bubbled around the group.
“No, mouse,” I insisted.
“Omi,” came the answer.
I was somewhat perturbed by this and turned to one of my more conscientious students to try and ascertain what the problem was. It turned out, after a few minutes of broken discussion, that these people seemed to hold the mouse in an elevated, even sacred, regard. At the time this seemed quite comical to me and I have commented in later papers upon this most curious choice of deity. Anyhow, I saw no reason at the time why they shouldn’t be aware of its proper name and so turned to them again and this time quite forcefully said, “Mouse.”
They stood uncomfortably for a few moments but gradually each reluctantly conceded:
“Mouse, mouse… mouse.”
And then it wasn’t Omi any more, it was a mouse.