Third World Language
by Ted L Glines
This account concerns a Norwegian named Bjornning Svunssen. As a young boy, Bjornning grew up on a farm east of the frozen sea, where it was always cold. He always hated the cold and it sometimes did not matter what he wore. Bjornning was a walking goose-bump. Through childhood and young manhood, the parents of Bjornning Svunssen were constantly pestered by "I'm cold" [in Norwegian, of course] and "Can you turn up the heat?" Up the hill from their home was a monestary where Bjornning Svunssen would go to visit from time to time. He noticed that all the monks had two things in common; they did not say anything, and they were each wearing this tremendously warm-looking robe, thick and with hairs sticking out of the brown fabric, covering them from neck to toes.
In time, after many visits to the monestary, Bjornning Svunssen came to think quite a lot about those gowns the monks wore, those long coarse wool garments cloaking each monk in hairy and toasty warmth. Bjornning Svunssen desired to have one of those robes for his very own. But he could not find out how to purchase such a robe since the monks never talked. It was very frustrating to want something so much but never come close to possessing it.
There came a day when Bjornning Svunssen [if you know how to pronounce his name, let me know] was allowed an audience with the Father who managed this monestary. He learned from the Father that the wonderful warm robes were not for sale. Only the monks were allowed to wear them.This was a bummer. Well, Bjornning Svunssen had never been religious but he became a monk that very same day. He became a man of the cloth; the warm and wonderfully toasty cloth.
For the very first time that he could remember, warmth soothed the entirety of Bjornning Svunssen. Now he wore his very own thick and hairy brown robe. Being a monk seemed very promising.
Without boring you with detail, suffice it to say that Bjornning Svunssen's training as a monk was long and arduous and ... silent. Long hours sitting on hard wooden benches, praying that God might see His way clear to provide padded benches. Afternoons spent pulling weeds in the outside gardens and praying that God might hit the area with weed-killer. Long nights tossing and turning on a hard wooden pallet and praying [ditto on prayer #1 above]. None of the monks were ever allowed to speak out loud. It was very quiet in the monestary. The morning and evening prayers in the chapel were conducted in silence. Bjornning Svunssen had never heard so much silence in his life. He came to believe that, when God did the communicating, words were not necessary.
After about two years of such training, Bjornning Svunssen was called into the office of the Father. Here, he learned for the first time about the mission's work on the southseas island of Pago Pago, attempting to teach the innocent natives the uplifting ways of prayer and meditation. It was the mission's devoted goal to save the souls of those natives, who would otherwise go to Hell because they worshipped idols in their dank and primitive jungles. The Father said that Bjornning Svunssen was now ready to become a missionary and he would sail the very next day to the island of Pago Pago.
The voyage to Pago Pago was a learning experience for Bjornning Svunssen, as he was able to absorb a lot about being seasick. Many days of up and down and back and forth, with most of his time spent leaning over the railing trying to empty himself of what was no longer there. Bjornning Svunssen began to see many advantages in the idea that God should make the oceans evaporate so that all journeys would be in nice wagons over solid ground which stayed in one place all the time. He mentioned this idea many times in prayers. Finally, his sailing ship came to Pago Pago and anchored in a small bay near a small rustic village surrounded by palm trees and jungle. There was one rickety wooden pier.
Before Bjornning Svunssen debarked his ship and took the longboat to the village dock, he gave a letter to the captain for delivery upon the ship's return to Norway. It was addressed to the monestary Father. He knew that the Father would wish to know that he had arrived safely, even if he was now quite skinny due to not being able to keep any food down for such a long time. God willing, he would mend.
It should have come as no surprise to Bjornning Svunssen that no one in the village spoke Norwegian. Maybe the prior missionaries had not stayed there long enough to impart civilized language to these poor primitive natives. Bjornning Svunssen saw no sign of stores or anything more commercial than crude fishing nets hanging out to dry near the water. The natives were uniformly brown and fat, with black shiney hair wrapped in tight buns at the back of their heads. In most cases, the buns were held in place with thin bones. Bjornning Svunssen could make nothing of their speech, which sounded like a fast mix of dogs barking, clicking, and gutteral moans. "Were these really words and sentences?" wondered Bjornning Svunssen, but it was better than the silence of the monestary. He would manage.
Almost immediately Bjornning Svunssen was taken in tow by an old and plump native man in a loin cloth, and his wife [?] who sat him down in the shade and pressed a coconut-shell bowl full of strange and colorful fruit; yellow and red and orange slices which tasted like the nectar of heaven to Bjornning Svunssen. They made him feel welcome with endless smiles, gestures, and sounds of dogs barking, clicking, and gutteral moans. When Bjornning Svunssen said "Thank you" [in Norwegian, "takk deg"], they paid no attention. The fat native man looked like everyone's happy uncle and they were treating him like their long lost nephew. Bjornning Svunssen thought that he could get used to such treatment.
Having relocated to a warm and humid southseas island, you might think that Bjornning Svunssen might divest himself of his thick and hairy monestary robe. Nope. Warm was a good thing. He could not get enough of it.
Toward evening, the old man and woman took Bjornning Svunssen by both arms and led him out of the village and down and roundabout on a jungle trail which wound through groves of tall vine-covered trees with pulpy leaves where brilliantly colored birds screeched and squawked and made rattling sounds with vibrating throats. None of them went "tweet" or said anything civilized. As they walked along, every now and then, something moved in the undergrowth, rustling or making slithering sounds. Small rodents skittered across the trail, and Bjornning Svunssen spotted exotic lizards here and there on pulpy leaves. The jungle had the aroma of wetness and humid greenness. Through the whole time walking, the old native man and woman kept up a running grinning chatter.
It was around sundown, already dark under the thick jungle canopy, when the three of them arrived at the camp of Bjornning Svunssen's hosts. It consisted of three huts made of thatching with kids running in and out and round about screaming and playing. In the center was a fire pit with jolly flames lighting up the huts and surrounding jungle. It was made apparent that Bjornning Svunssen [you tired of that name yet?] was to make one of the huts his own. With much smiling and barking and clicking, they almost pushed him into his hut. And then they brought him bowls of nuts and some kind of native bread. It was delicious.
Bjornning Svunssen's hut had rounded walls; branches curving up to join at the top, and all of it covered with layers of thatched leaves. The ground in the hut was covered with a kind of rug made of the same thatching, and a bed of sorts was a pile of thick leaves against the back wall. All in all, it was quite comfortable.
The routine of each day was easy and never varied. When the sun was high enough to shine light into the camp, eight or nine naked kids came out to laugh and scream and play. Bjornning Svunssen awoke this way every morning. Soon, out would come the old man and woman with much happy barking, clicking, and moaning, and then they would bring breakfast to Bjornning Svunssen, usually various kinds of sweet jungle fruit. During the mid-morning, Bjornning Svunssen would make short expeditionary hikes into the jungle, seeing everything and marveling at new animals and exotic plants. When the sun was highest, he found himself back at the camp of his hosts where the food usually turned out to be a meat and vegetable soup which had been cooked in a gut bag hung close to the central fire. All things considered, for Bjornning Svunssen, life was good. During the afternoon hours, Bjornning Svunssen wrote about all the new things he had seen, and this would be part of the letter he would send back to the mission via the monthly supply ship. By late afternoon, some kind of game was roasting over the fire for the night's supper. Sometimes it might be a large bird, or a lizard, or maybe something resembling a small deer. One time, he saw they were cooking a fair-sized snake. Regardless, the evening meal was always great. As Bjornning Svunssen tasted the meat of some different creature, he always thought, "Nope, does not taste like chicken" [of course, his thought was in Norwegian words]. It did not take long for Bjornning Svunssen to become accustomed to the night sounds of the jungle, and he slept like a well-fed baby.
Thus did the days of Bjornning Svunssen turn into weeks, which turned into months and then years. His only real calendar became the arrival of the monthly supply ship. The old native man and woman always took him with them to the village on the bay when the ship was in port. It was a ritual.
Language? Well, life in the mission had taught Bjornning Svunssen that God speaks in silence. Maybe the simple fact of him being there among the natives was enough for God to be speaking to them. He would say his Norwegian things, and the natives would moan and click and bark, and they all got along together like one big happy family. Bjornning Svunssen was smart enough to know that God knew what He was doing.
At one point, feeling the call of nature, Bjornning Svunssen asked, "Har du noen toalettpapir?" - to which the old fat native lady answered, "Bark, bark, bark, click, moooaaan, bark!" smiling widely and handing him a nice bowl of fruit and nuts. Having completed that attempt at communication, he ate his fruit and nuts before retiring to the jungle to hang his butt over a fallen log, wiping himself afterward with a handy leaf. The texture was not bad.
It was touching, the way that the old man and woman showed their concern for his health. Upon his arrival, Bjornning Svunssen had been skinny as a rail. But they dutifully brought him bowls of food about twenty-six times per day, and Bjornning Svunssen had recovered his weight in a surprisingly short time. As a matter of fact, he was growing downright plump. It was a good thing Bjornning Svunssen wore his monk's robe, all hairy and thick and bulky with lots of room inside; he could never have fit into his old jeans or designer shirts.
At the end of each month, Bjornning Svunssen sent a letter detailing his adventures among the Pago Pagoans. This letter was picked up by the monthly supply boat, and it would eventually arrive in the hands of the goodly Father at the monestary. Friar Svunssen invested much detail about new animals seen, new and wonderful jungle plants and birds, and gossip about his largely non-verbal interactions with the hospitable natives.
It was in the fall of his second year as a missionary that the letters from Friar Svunssen stopped arriving at the monestary. This absence of mail from Pago Pago went on for months before anyone became alarmed. In the seventh month of waiting for a letter which never came, Father Carmudgeon sent a friar to Pago Pago with instructions to find Friar Svunssen and learn why he had ceased writing. It was all to no avail, however, since the friar found no sign that Friar Svunssen had ever been on the island. The natives were friendly and offered to help in the search. But this offer was difficult to know for sure because of the language problem
The mysterious disappearance of Friar Svunssen continues under investigation. One detective who knew a smattering of the Pago Pagoan speech, thinks he overheard something about a strange white man in a hairy dress who spoke like he had a mouth full of coconut mush, having been last seen roasting on the village fire, but this seemed highly unlikely since the native Pago Pagoans always smiled and acted so nice and welcoming.