Ahua, the Water Language
A Cultural Introduction

N. Aalberg
Department of Sociolinguistic Geography
Vrije Universiteit van Bladelberkanaard, Zwaagwester Provincie

To appear in "Water becomes stone: Studies in the Ahua language" (University of Estonia and Latvia Tracts in Psycholinguistics vol.68A, ed. Prof. E. Swarzchild)


The visitor to Ahua will at first sight see little unusual. Only the particular architectural styles, clothing, food, and so forth appear to distinguish Ahua from any other technologically developed culture. But as everyone reading this volume will know, that first impression cannot survive beyond the first encounter with the Ahuans' language. Even without any knowledge about or understanding of the language, the first thing that will strike the visitor is how few words they use. A conversation between Ahuans appears to consist of short interjections embedded in silence. A crowded bar does not present to the ear the same continuous hub-bub that would be heard almost anywhere else in the world, but conveys to an outsider the irresistible impression of people muttering desultorily among themselves while waiting for something else to happen. But they are not: that sporadic muttering is the Ahuans' equivalent of an animated social arena.

As soon as one converses with an Ahuan -- not in their own language, of course -- one receives from them the impression of being patiently humoured. One is an outsider whose presence is being politely tolerated, but not a person to take seriously. And to the best of our knowledge, that is precisely how the Ahuans see everyone else.

As in France, so in Ahua: to speak the local language is at once compulsory and forbidden. Speaking in one's own language one will be indifferently tolerated; speaking in Ahuan one will be even more indifferently tolerated. Either way, the Ahuans' conviction that outsiders are forever barred from Ahuan culture by their inferior understanding is upheld. The Ahuans believe that no-one can learn the Ahuan language, and they do everything possible to ensure that this is the case.

In Ahuan, everything not absolutely essential to the meaning is omitted. That which remains is referred to obliquely, by allusion, again with the minimum of detail. The sentence "One thing is not another" may, according to context, mean almost anything; yet to an Ahuan, the precise meaning in any particular context will always be crystal clear.

Those who first studied the Ahuans at first took vagueness and ambiguity to be the central features of their language, and this misconception is still widely accepted. However, it is a misconception. An Ahuan utterance is always precise and clear, to another Ahuan. It is we who lack the necessary context to disambiguate what to us looks like impenetrable fog. But to acquire that context, it is necessary to be an Ahuan.

Those early scholars assumed that what they took to be imprecision and vagueness must be resolved by body language. But with the maturing of Ahuan studies it has become clear that it is not so. Their non-verbal communication is as indirect and allusive as the verbal language. Indeed, everything in Ahuan culture partakes of the same quality. Nothing can be understood except in the context of everything else.

Words may mean different things at different times. The very grammar can be reinterpreted between one sentence and the next. A sentence literally meaning "Grass, and yet..." (and in context meaning almost anything) might on another occasion literally mean "But a door..."

Discussions and arguments do not happen among the Ahuans. Like the rest of humanity, they have tasks to get done, disagreements to resolve, love and anger to express, but the manifestation of these in language is very different. A turn in a conversation consists of a few words, a gesture, a pregnant pause. A mere look, a word, and a passionate endearment or a deadly insult may have been delivered -- or even both simultaneously.

The Ahuans look with mild amusement on our efforts to speak Ahua. An outsider invariably falls into certain faults which instantly mark him out, to an Ahuan, as having only a childish grasp of the language. He will attach fixed meanings to the words, and he will memorise stereotyped expressions. Ahuans take pride in the fact that their language is always changing. An Ahuan will never use the same word twice with the same meaning. There is a constant striving for unfashionability -- indeed, no fashion of speaking can ever assert itself, for when an Ahuan notices that some word, or phrase, or any other feature of speech is beginning to be used with any consistency, he deliberately flouts that incipient rigidification. For this reason, no bilingual dictionary can ever be made of the language. Curiously, there are Ahuan dictionaries. They are considered to be among the greatest works of Ahuan literature. They partake of the elliptical and allusive style of the everyday language, and are more like poetic meditations on the words of Ahua than definitions. Needless to say, they are completely useless for the foreign learner of Ahua.

Although, according to Ahuans, foreign speakers can do no more than babble in Ahua, they do nevertheless understand the Ahua which a brave foreigner may attempt. Their attitude is always that of an adult patiently listening to a child grappling with long words it hardly knows the meaning of. It is never clear whether an Ahuan conversing with a foreigner is taking the foreigner seriously. When Ahuans speak our languages, the impression is the same. Their utterances are short, precise, and to the point. They pay little attention to long speeches, brushing them aside (without being so rude as to say so) as tedious and irrelevant fluff.

There are local accents and dialects of Ahua, but, inevitably, these too are subject to constant flux. In fact, only an Ahuan can detect them. No fixed manner of speech can persist among any group of Ahuans, yet the very pattern of their variability clearly indicates to an Ahuan where an Ahuan speaker comes from, their gender, social background, manner of livelihood, and many other things which outsiders can scarcely guess at. Thus it happens that when two Ahuans meet for the first time, they almost instantly have a detailed grasp of the other's background, and can interpret their speech according to that context.

Ahuan literature pushes the central feature of Ahua to an even greater extreme. One Ahua play appears to have but a single character, who adopts a certain stationary posture in the centre of the stage, and repeats a single short phrase exactly 3162 times with unvarying intonation. To an outsider, this looks like a baffling work of minimalist art. An Ahuan will experience a stirring five-act play with several dozen characters and an epic sweep. Each repetition of the phrase, and the actor's posture, in the context of what has preceded it, means something entirely different. An earlier work by the same author repeated the phrase only 3149 times. The additional 13 lines (according to the Ahuans, and we are in no position to disagree) put an entirely new significance on everything that precedes them, and lift the play into the realm of greatness.

Ahuans do not like to be seen in motion, literally or metaphorically. An Ahuan has a way of appearing in a room, without anyone noticing his or her entrance. When they sit down or stand up, it is simply a transition from one static position to another. When they walk, the impression is still static, a fixed state of "walking" rather than an active process. The same applies to their conduct in a discussion. They cannot be drawn into discursive, negotiative conversations. Instead, they utter in declamatory style, short, terse statements which, like their physical carriage, give little clue to a non-Ahuan of where, as we say, they are coming from.


The interested reader may also wish to consult an extract from Aalberg's primary work on Ahua.

Visitors to Ahua are few, and few who return are able to speak of their experiences. The most substantial documentation known (which is not saying much) is the initial fragment of an account of a journey into Ahua. It is not known who the author was or whether the narrative was ever continued.

Richard Kennaway, jrk@cmp.uea.ac.uk