Cultural variations in the concept of 'face'
In: Multilingua, 12: 119-41.
The human body provides a universal analogical model for the production of metaphors. Body parts
like the face, substances like blood, or bodily experiences of hot and cold, are often used to express
metaphoric meanings. But the universality of body parts, substances and experiences should not
lead us to think that the metaphorical use made of them will be the same in different cultures.
Although there are surprisingly widespread similar uses made of the heart, the eye, the mouth, of
the blood, semen, etcetera, there are also surprising differences. The notion of 'face' is a good
example of this. Until now, anthropologists and linguists alike have paid little attention to these
culturally specific notions of 'face'. The difference affects both the concept of the physical face and
its metaphorical extension. This article deals with the Hamar notion of face. While the European
and Mediterranean concept of 'face' relates more to the lower part of the face, especially the mouth,
the Hamar concept of 'face' relates to the upper part, especially the forehead. And while in the
former cultures the term in its metaphorical extension speaks of social fear and shame, the latter
speaks of fortune and freedom of action.
1. Introduction: 'Face' and the theory of politeness
The concept of 'face' has come to play an important role in politeness theory. Brown and Levinson,
for example, have chosen it as the central notion for their study of universals in language usage and
politeness phenomena (1978, 1987). They have paraphrased 'face' as 'the public self-image that
every member wants to claim for himself (1978), but obviously they prefer 'face' to 'public self-
image', for throughout their text they almost exclusively use the term 'face', only occasionally
mentioning 'public self-image'.
Brown and Levinson say that they have derived the notion of 'face' from Ervin Goffman and 'from
the English folk term which ties face up with notions of being embarrassed or humiliated, or "losing
face"' (1978: 66). In the process of their analysis they have come to distinguish between negative
face and positive face which they have defined as follows:
(a) negative face: the basic claim to territories, personal preserves, rights to non-distinction - i.e. to
freedom of action and freedom from imposition
(b) positive face: the positive consistent self-image or 'personality' (crucially including the desire
that this self-image be appreciated and approved of) claimed by interactants. (1978: 66)
Negative face and positive face may be expressed as wants, that is,
negative face: the want of every 'competent adult member' that his actions be unimpeded by others,
positive face: the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others.
In the 1987 reissue of their work, the authors have stressed the abstractness of these definitions.
They say that central to their theory is a 'highly abstract notion of "face" which consists of two
specific kinds of desires ("face wants") attributed by interactants to one another; the desire to be
unimpeded in one's actions (negative face), and the desire (in some respects) to be approved of
(positive face)' (1987: 13).
I think the emphasis on abstractness here is misleading. Firstly, the definitions of 'face' given above
are hardly abstract but, on the contrary, very concrete. People want to be respected (unimpeded)
and loved (approved of). Secondly, by stressing abstractness, Brown and Levinson run the risk of
forgetting that 'face' is, after all, not an 'etic' but an 'emic' category and should be studied as such.
'Face' is 'a metaphor we live by', as Lakoff and Johnson would say (1980). It allows us, actors and
observers alike, to grasp some essentials of politeness phenomena. It evokes the danger inherent in
social interaction, the possibility of threat and assault on one's social standing or personal intergrity
- and, above all, it reminds us of the fact that social vulnerability is mutual. As Brown and Levinson
have pointed out, everyone has face and 'everyone's face depends on everyone else's being
maintained, and since people can be expected to defend their faces if threatened, and if defending
their own to threaten other's faces, it is in general in every participant's best interest to maintain
each other's face' (1978: 66).
The insight into this kind of reciprocal interest and the cooperation which it generates lie at the
heart of Brown and Levinson's theory of politeness and have inspired their brilliant analysis of the
strategies by which various forms of face-threatening acts (FTAs) can be performed. However,
abstractness has played little role in this. Rather, the authors have used the metaphor of 'face' to
think through the dialectics of politeness and then have transformed this metaphor into a series of
subsequent ones which helped them to define positive and negative face, that is, metaphors of
action (claim), of legal and spatial domains (territory, preserve), of appearance (image) and of
evaluation (appreciate, approve).
Brown and Levinson do not characterize their analyses as consisting of such a transformation or
extension of a powerful initial 'root metaphor' (Turner 1975). Rather they stress, as I have said, that
their notion of face is highly abstract. Also, when they ask the question of how different cultural
notions of face can be studied, they think first and foremost of the different ways in which face-
threatening acts (FTAs) may be performed, and how the parameters and variables within their
scheme of politeness strategies may be differently utilized in different cultures. They ask, '... what
the exact limits are to personal territories, and what the publicly relevant content of personality
consists in' (1978: 66-67), and '... how confrontations or shamings are managed, how people gossip
(...) how they clear their name from disparagement, and how face regard (and sanctions for face
disregard) are incorporated in religious and political systems' (1987: 14).
Their discussion of interactional ethos is also along these lines. They note that in some societies the
ethos of interaction is friendly, warm and easy going, while in others it is distant, stiff and irksome.
In some societies people are allowed, even encouraged, to show off and brag, while in others they
must be deferential and modest, and so on. The task of cross-cultural studies of politeness is, as
Brown and Levinson have convincingly shown, to describe and explain such cultural variations in
the performance of face-threatening acts.
Yet there is also another and closely related task. Brown and Levinson have mentioned it in some
very suggestive lines. They have said, for example, that 'notions of face naturally link up to some of
the most fundamental cultural ideas about the social person', and they have called for 'more in the
way of ethnographic descriptions of the way in which people articulate face notions' (1987: 14).
However, they have never spelt out clearly what a truly cross-cultural analysis of variations of the
metaphor 'face' would look like. The face is a very significant part of the human body. As such it is
part of a universal analogical repertoire which can be used for metaphorical production in all
cultures. How is this repertoire actualized? Do all cultures use 'face' as a metaphor, or is 'face' not
universal? What are the cultural variations of face-metaphors? Which features of the face are
stressed when people think and speak of 'face', and what do the varieties of 'face' tell us about the
cultures and societies in which they occur? Surely, these are interesting questions and must be part
of any cross-cultural study of politeness. Furthermore, if there are differences, even striking
differences, in the ways in which people conceptualize 'face', will these differences not illuminate a
common ground? Will a comparative study of 'face' not enhance our understanding of politeness
phenomena in a similar way as our folk term 'face' first inspired Brown and Levinson? The more
metaphorical meanings of 'face' we know, the better we will be equipped to think about a general
theory of politeness.
2. The coercive power of 'face'
I will present a specific cultural variation of 'face', that is, the Hamar concept of woti below. But
before I do so, let me say a few things about the way I understand our own metaphor of 'face'.
I think that the evocative power of 'loss of face' derives from a clever exploitation of conceptual
part-whole relationships. The first is a synecdoche: a significant part of a person, that is, the face
with which one faces others (or which one hides from others) is taken to represent the whole
person, that is, the whole character, social standing, moral values, etcetera. Then, in turn, a single
act, or single acts, are used as an index where metonymically an effect stands for a cause. A bad
deed, it is said, reflects a bad person, a bad result reflects a bad cause. Or, to see the same thing
synecdochically, a bad part (morally bad act) represents a bad whole (bad person). Thus, when
people warn each other not to risk loss of face by doing this or the other, they say implicitly that
there will be people who track back the path of the synecdoche contained in the notion of 'face'. The
unspoken argument is: if you do not do what is publicly expected of you, then you will lose your
face and will be declared bad in toto. This totalizing effect seems to be the central motive of the
metaphor 'loss of face'.
Also, if 'face' is a supreme value and everyone in the social hierarchy has 'face' and is forced to
'save face', then this must necessarily strengthen the status quo. Thus 'face' acts in favor of existing
social inequalities. It binds people to their different domains in the social hierarchy. All those who
would perhaps like more freedom, fewer impositions, more opportunities to be admired and held in
esteem by others are restricted by 'face' and are inhibited from aspiring to anything lying outside the
confines of their narrow and conventionally defined realm of action.
'Face', then, is a coercive social concept and indirectly speaks of social chains. Because you have
'face', you always have to be afraid of losing it. This feature of 'fear of loss' it shares with a number
of other terms used to express the social worthiness of a person. But interestingly, one does not
have a 'sense of face' nor does one compete for 'face' as one does for honor and also for 'name',
fame, regard, esteem or respect. This comes out most clearly in the fact that one does not qualify
anyone's 'face' as being 'great', 'high', 'rich', etcetera. One cannot accumulate and compete for it.
There are many more facets to 'face' which need to be explored. But here I want to mention only
one more feature which plays a significant role in our understanding of 'face'. When we speak of
'face', we envisage the central part of the face. We see especially the mouth and the eyes, which are
so prone to reveal a person's inner feelings, often even against one's own will. For us, 'face' is
closely associated with the self, with inner feelings, emotions and desires, and with cultural notions
of sin, guilt and shame.
3. The Hamar
The Hamar of southern Ethiopia are the southernmost group of Omotic-speaking peoples (see
Bender 1976). They number between fifteen to twenty thousand people and practice a mixed
economy based on pastoralism (goats, sheep, cattle), agriculture (sorghum, maize, various beans,
etcetera), apiculture, gathering, hunting and raiding. Settlements are dispersed, and their location
usually chosen as a compromise between the need to be near the fields (slash and burn cultivations
in the bush), near a water-hole, and near good and healthy pasture.
Within a settlement area there will be a number of homesteads, varying considerably in number
(from less than ten to more than thirty), but each homestead always follows the same lay-out and
consists of a cattle kraal, goat enclosure and one or more houses which belong to the married
women, who, with their husbands, jointly own the herds.
The homestead is often inhabited by a widowed mother and some of her sons and their wives, or by
a group of siblings under the ritual of authority of the oldest brother. Descent is patrilineal, but
lineages are shallow. There are twenty-four clans, which again are divided in two moieties (see
Lydall and Strecker 1979). Also, their territory is divided by one basic division, one part of the
country being under the ritual authority of a man from the clan Gatta and the other under a man
from the clan Worla. Each half of the territory is again split into segments which have, however, no
single ritual functionary responsible for them as a whole.
Although the Hamar practise a mixed economy, they do not rely on all the different resources in the
same way. Most important for their survival are the goats, and they themselves stress that goat
husbandry is the backbone of their economy: 'Kuli edi zani ne', 'people with goats are like ropes or
leather straps; their life is well secured, it will not snap'. The management of goats inhibits the
formation of large corporate social groups and encourages individualism with much spatial
mobility. Goat herds always fluctuate in size and, above all, allow a quick build-up. One does not
need the cooperation of different age-groups and generations as one does to build up herds of cattle
or camels. The management of goats is more efficiently carried out by small and largely
independent units, which perhaps in crisis lend each other support, but do not have to cooperate
continuously over any length of time. The individualism of goat herding is deeply ingrained in
Hamar culture and has led to a very thorough rejection of authority. True, the Hamar donza, that is,
the married men who are the basic agents of Hamar politics, have delegated some responsibilities of
decision-making to individuals. There is first the hereditary office of the two bitta, who are ritually
responsible for the health, safety and general well-being of the Hamar. Then there are the gudili,
who look after the well-being of the fields, the kogo, who bless the homesteads, the djilo, who
magically lead dangerous enterprises like raiding or hunting, and there are the ayo, who have been
elected to speak in public for their respective territorial segments. But the Hamar watch these men
carefully, and the closer an office is to any truly political activity, the more the donza are ready to
check their ambition for power.
4. Terms referring to the persona
If one wants to understand the Hamar concept of 'face', it is best to look at the wider semantic field
of which it is a part. There are several Hamar terms which refer to the persona. I outline
them here before turn to 'face' itself.
4.1 Barjo ('goodfortune')
In Hamar, the most important aspect of the persona is its barjo. Barjo may be defined as a concept
of continuous creation. According to the Hamar, creation goes on continuously in the world, and
human beings have an active part to play in it. Every living being needs barjo to exist and achieve
its natural state of well-being. Even such phenomena as clouds, rain, the stars, etcetera, need to
have their barjo to appear in a regular and ordered way.
People can actively engage in producing and augmenting the barjo of people, animals, plants, the
soil, the seasons, etcetera, by calling barjo. Here is an abridged version of such a barjo äla:
Eh-eh! The herds are carrying sickness
May the sickness go beyond Labur, may it go,
Cattle owners you have enemies,
May the Korre who looks at our cattle, die, die,
May his heart get speared, get speared,
Eh-eh! My herds which are at Mello,
May my herds come lowing, come,
May the girls blow the flutes, blow,
May the women dance, dance
May the men rest, rest.
(Lydall and Streeker 1979: 14-15)
Both men and women have barjo, but only the donza call barjo in the emphatic and stylized way of
the example given above. Women call barjo in a quiet and unobtrusive way, for example, by
sweeping the entrance to their goat enclosure and by putting on a belt which is decorated with
cowrie shells. As one old woman once told me, she causes others to be well (have barjo) simply by
wishing them well, she does not need any words for this.
The Hamar elders, on the other hand, stress that they need to meet and chant together in order to
call forth barjo. They carry their own barjo with them wherever they go, and whenever it seems
necessary to cause well-being, they get together and call barjo. Often they delegate the leading part
of the chanting to men who act in a specific office, for example, as gudili ('guardian of the fields'),
kogo ('guardian of the fires of the homesteads') or bitta ('guardian of all of Hamar country'). When
older and younger brothers are present, it is always the older who leads the chanting.
By means of the barjo äla the elders try to exercise control over each other and especially over
women and children. It is the old who call barjo for the young, and it is the men who call barjo for
the women, not vice versa. But having said this, one needs to stress that the concept of barjo and
the practices associated with it lack any competitive or aggressive element. People never do
anything great and outrageous to achieve barjo, nor do they boast about their barjo. In fact, the
concept is of such a kind that the greater anyone's barjo is, the more that person will be
harmonious, non-aggressive, non-competitive and non-problematic. Anyone who has great barjo
will be able to act well, will not collide with others and will be agreeable in the eyes of others and
his (or her) own.
Now, if the Hamar concept of the persona is grounded in the concept of barjo, then it is interesting
to view barjo from the viewpoint of politeness theory. If every adult member of Hamar society
claims barjo for himself, and if the Hamar are concerned to call barjo for each other, does this not
mean that they are constantly attending to their negative and positive 'face wants' (as defined by
Brown and Levinson, see above)?
Their desire to be unimpeded by others (negative face) is expressed in terms of barjo. Often I have
heard people say to each other, 'issa barjon säsan gara' ('Don't spoil my good fortune').
To claim barjo for oneself is the supreme expression of a Hamar's want for freedom of action, or
more precisely, for the potential to act or simply exist freely.
The calling of barjo for others is, on the other hand, a most emphatic form of positive politeness.
Those who get blessed are positively attended to and assured of their intrinsic social value.
4.2 Nabi ('name')
The Hamar concept of nabi closely resembles our literal and figurative use of the term 'name'. Like
'face', the metaphor 'name' acts by exploiting a part-whole relationship (see my analysis of 'face'
above). The name is an intrinsic part of a person, and the social worthiness of a person accumulates
in the name. To have a good name is almost like being good; to have a bad name is almost like
being bad. In this way 'name' in our own culture and nabi in the culture of the Hamar can be used
for a coercive rhetoric which is very much like the rhetoric of 'face' and honor. If you do not behave
properly, you run the risk of losing your good name.
'Name' already acquires some coercive force by the simple fact that by giving a name to someone,
one usually implies the recognition of her or his social value. Naming is equivalent to valuing!
People are given names in order to be or become socially valuable.
Typically, in Hamar people are given several names during the course of their life-cycle, each name
signifying some specific aspect of their persona. Also, the giving of a new name is always
associated with blessing. You are blessed to become worthy and great like a big mountain, like
Mount Bala, as the Hamar say. This blessing is an emphatic act of positive politeness, but it is also
coercive in that a person is named and given a value precisely to enter the social domain and aspire
to social worthiness. The name is given in order that the owner may guard, keep and enhance it and
fulfil all the social expectations which are connected with it.
4.3 Micere ('whipping wand')
In the same way as the Hamar may say, 'Don't spoil my barjo' or 'Don't spoil my name', they also
say, 'Don't spoil my whipping wand.'
The whipping wand is the most significant tool for herding in Hamar. It is long, light and flexible
and ideally suited to act as an extension of the arm of the herdsman, or, more often, the herding boy
or girl. 'At the nose of the whipping wand there is butter,' goes the saying, and indeed in the long
run no survival would be possible if the Hamar did not manage to use their whips well. Cattle and
camels you may herd with sticks, but for small livestock you need the whipping wand, especially
for the goats, who tend to spread as each goat wanders off to satisfy its individual taste. Sheep are
more easy to handle because they tend to stay together in a close group, but goats need constant
attention. The art of herding, then, involves the voice (all sorts of hissing, whistling, shouting,
singing), gestures (especially with the arms) and the whipping wand, which is used not only as an
extension of the arm but also as an extension of the voice, because one can produce a variety of
sharp noises with the whip and can use it to hit the ground, leaves, grass, branches, and thus attract
the attention of the goats and lead them in the desired direction.
As goats provide the backbone of the Hamar economy (see above), and as the whipping wand is the
most important tool for herding the goats, it is understandable that the use of the whipping wand has
been ritualized to some extent and has been metaphorically exploited to speak of the social wants of
The ritualization already begins in such small acts as when a father hands a new whipping wand to
his son in the morning. He does this usually after some accident has happened, for example, a goat
may have been lost or eaten by a hyena. After such ill luck, the father hands a new whipping wand
to the herding boy, who then uses it throughout the day and, in the evening, when the whole herd
has entered the homestead safely, places it across the gateway of the goat enclosure. As time goes
by, many dry old whips accumulate here and grow into a big bundle, which is evidence of the
problems of looking after the herd and how those problems were overcome. Further forms of
ritualization are found in the rites of passage into manhood (Lydall and Strecker 1979: 76, 83) and
in the burial rites (Lydall and Strecker 1979: 41, 57).
The whipping wand, however, is not only a tool to herd animals, it is also a tool to control people.
Typically, boys and young men shift their attention away from the goats and cattle when they come
to the homesteads, the fields and the waterholes, where they meet girls, with whom they flirt. Then
they express their liking for the girls not so much in sweet words but in mock assaults in which they
use the whipping wands in their gestures of attack. Later, when they have married, men sometimes
use their whips in earnest in order to subdue their wives. Men use the whip towards women but not
vice versa, except during the harvest celebrations when women mockingly whip men. The degree to
which this use is based on provocation comes out most clearly in the ritual of manhood, where the
girls (possible future wives) provoke the initiates (their possible future husbands) to whip them in
public (see Gardner 1972; Leach 1976: 48; Lydall and Strecker 1979: 45).
Men also use the whip towards other men. This begins as early as childhood when older brothers
often threaten or actually hit their younger brothers with the whips which they are constantly
carrying. Later in life, youths may sometimes be severely whipped by their 'older brothers' (men
senior to them) as a punishment for some offence like thieving or going on a raid without the
consent of the elders. The elders (donza), however, are never whipped but punished by other means,
for example, by the fine of an animal.
This asymmetry in the use of the whip is ritually expressed in an institution called 'whipping wand'
(micere). Every year, shortly after the crops in the fields have ripened and the young men have, as
the Hamar say, become so well-fed that they question the authority of their seniors, the 'older
brothers' get together, equip themselves with bundles of fresh whipping wands and chase after the
most provocative youths in order to beat them. After they have caught them (some of them) and
have given them a real or token beating, the men are served food and drink in the fields by the
women (some of them the proud mothers of the delinquents), and there is much talk, feasting and
fun where the general authority of the senior men is asserted. In older days, when the Hamar age-set
organization was still functioning, ritual whipping of young men also occurred at the formation of
each new age-set.
In a sense we can speak here of the expression of negative face wants, that is, the want to be
unimpeded by others (see above). Note that here the one who has been threatened defends himself
by using an off-record strategy which hides his personal interest behind a metaphor. Here the
metaphor of micere, in other contexts the notion of barjo, and, as I will show below, in still other
situations, the metaphors of apho ('word'), dumai ('big toe') and woti ('forehead') are used to speak
indirectly about one's claim to be unimpeded by others.
4.4 Apho (`word`)
In order to show how the notion of barjo, the institutionalized whipping and the Hamar concept of
the word (apho) all tie up in one single social practice, let me quote the following two statements:
Now it is time for the herds to leave for the distant grazing area. The elders hold a meeting where
they bring their whips and whip the young men: 'What are you doing here, lazy fellows, go and herd
the cattle. Look the Korre are coming, the Galeba are coming. Go and look after the herds.'
So they whip them and then they call barjo and hand a whip to the spokesman of the new age
'Take it, herd the cattle with it and when any man talks badly or works badly hit him with this
The new spokesman is an intelligent youth who can talk well. (Lydall and Strecker 1979: 124-25)
So the fellow draws forth service. Such a man is an ayo. If those who go don't kill the giraffe, the
buffalo, the lion, the ostrich, the leopard, but if they meet the enemy and one of them dies, it will be
'His word is bad, his command is bad. Stop him.'
And he will be stopped from taking command. Someone else will be selected to take his place.
(Lydall and Strecker 1979: 109)
The two texts show how in Hamar the word and the whip are given to exercise authority, but both
your whip and word will only be accepted by others if they lead to good fortune. Only a person with
great and strong barjo can be a leader (ayo). If his barjo is weak, then his word will cause bad luck
for those who listen to it. One can often hear in Hamar the statement, 'apho barjo tau' ('the word is
barjo'). The Latin proverb 'nomen est omen' comes to mind, and the almost universal belief in the
magical power of words. The word is always a very critical extension of the persona, and it
inescapably affects both the speaker and the world around her/him.
The ultimate expression of this mode of thinking is the Hamar barjo äla, which I have described
above. Here the human voice is used systematically to cause well-being. In a continuous process of
giving and receiving barjo, people bless each other by means of their inherent power of speech. As
speech is such an intrinsic part of people's social and moral being, it also lends itself for the
production of metaphors which refer to the social and moral side of a person. When the Hamar say
'apho issa säsan gara' ('don't spoil my word'), they do not literally mean this but think of much
more complex meanings like, 'don't spoil the good influence which my words usually have on the
world', 'don't interfere with my will', 'don't attack my persona'.
When the Hamar judge each other and assess their respective social values, they constantly refer to
the sincerity or insincerity of a person's word, and to whether it is truthful or false. They say 'apho
kissa tipha ne' ('his word is straight'), or 'apho kissa koara ne' ('his word is bent'). Typical attributes
used for judgement are given in Table 1:
Table 1. Attributes used to express sincerity/insincerity
dätsa 'heavy' sholba 'light'
As speaking is such a significant social activity, to speak truthfully is like being a good person, and
to speak falsely is like being a bad person. No wonder then that in Hamar apho has been exploited
for metaphoric production and has received a meaning which pertains to the whole person.
4.5 Dumai ('big toe')
It may sound odd that the Hamar consider the big toe and, by extension, the shin as an important
aspect of the persona. But a brief moment of reflection is enough to grasp the logic of this train of
thought: the Hamar move constantly on foot through difficult terrain. When they go to their fields,
when they follow their herds, when they go scouting or hunting or raiding, it is extremely important
that they do not hurt their feet and legs. But there are many thorns, hard pieces of wood or sharp
stones, on which people hurt themselves even if they are careful and experienced (see Strecker
1979: 175). Therefore, people are very much aware of the importance of their feet and legs and the
need to keep them safe from damage.
'May your path be free (of obstacles)' is one of the ways in which the Hamar wish each other well.
Also, when they call barjo, they wish each other to move like baboons, for baboons move lightly
and never hurt themselves as human beings do (see Strecker 1979: 3).
The big toe is thus, in practical terms, a very significant part of the body, and it makes sense that the
Hamar have used it as a metaphor of a person's competence and freedom of action. But there is also
more to it, an almost magical element which is also present in the notion of barjo and in the
metaphors of 'whipping wand' and 'word', but which comes out more clearly here.
In order to demonstrate the thinking which is associated with the dumai ('shin' in general, 'big toe' in
particular) let me quote directly from my notebook:
Lalombe, Makonen's older brother, tells me without me asking more than what the name for 'big
toe' is: 'The right big toe is very bad (that is, very good). It leads you to success, to success in
raiding, in hunting and so on. Your right big toe is fat. If I go to visit a homestead and my big toe
hits hard against an obstacle on the path, then I ask myself whether the homestead will be well. If I
stumble with my left foot I will meet well-being, much food and good fortune. If I stumble with my
right foot this will lead me to suffering, lack of food and misfortune. When I encounter such
obvious bad luck or good luck I say to myself, isn't it the stumbling which has caused this affair?'
Lalombe does something here which is typical for the Hamar: he not only speaks of a predictive
sign but also of a cause for bad (or good) luck. When he stumbles on his way, he does not know
whether the stumbling initiates anything. Only when he arrives at his destination and finds there
that he is not welcome, or that there is simply nothing to eat and drink, or that people are sick or
have died, does he say, 'Things are bad here because I have stumbled.' What is happening here?
I think Lalombe is playing a rhetorical game which helps him to uphold the illusion of his power
and competence. To be part of a situation where misfortune has occurred is always in some way
damaging, even to the witness who may not be directly concerned. Therefore it makes sense to
develop strategies which help one to escape or at least cover up one's helplessness. What Lalombe
does is to exploit the ambiguity inherent in language. More precisely, he exploits the lack of deictic
clarity which characterizes much of everyday speech. For a sentence to be deictically clear one
needs an anchorage of space, time and actor.
In 'Isn't it the stumbling which brought the affair?' there is an ambiguity about the relationship
between time, action and place. This comes out most clearly when one visualizes the three domains
involved in the sentence: the person, the obstacle and the destination with its good or bad luck. It
remains an open question whether the speaker is conceptually separating three domains as in Figure
good or bad luck
He may also be thinking of two domains where either the 'hitting of the obstacle' or the 'meeting
good or bad luck' are merged into one domain:
good or bad luck
Finally, he may not distinguish between any domains at all, thus merging time, space and action in
an unspecified way:
The person, the obstacle and the house in these figures are both separate and related entities.
Lalombe alludes to some necessary connection between all the three entities as soon as some
significant lack of control has occurred.
Like the twitching of a part of the body which in Hamar often 'tells' something, stumbling is
involuntary, it escapes one's control. And so does the prosperity and well-being of others toward