01 February 2011
sumakit and the euphemisms
They say the hardest level of competence to attain in any language is pragmatic competence, i.e. the ability to use words according to appropriate meanings in specific contexts. That proved true for me recently. For as long as I could remember, I had used the Dusun word sumakit to mean 'sick' in general. From minor ailment like viral infection to serious problem like cancer, I had always called them sakit "sickness". Little did I realize that I was using the word based on the way I used it in Malay, my dominant language, since the same word sakit is used in Malay to refer to those things.
Until a fortnight ago...at a cousin's house. My cousin, his wife and their eldest daughter's birthdays are all in the same week, so they made it a point to celebrate together this year. I had to come with only my eldest girl and youngest son, as hubby and second girl were not feeling well. One of my cousins, one who had had the advantage of growing up speaking 'pure' Dusun asked me where my hubby was. I, of course, answered "sumakit". She looked at me with a funny expression, burst out laughing and humorously explained to me that one only says sumakit when the person being referred to is gravely ill. Having the advantage of being a medical doctor on top of being a pure speaker, she explained the types of illnesses that one may call 'sakit', and those ailments that should be referred to as longoh-longohon "having a cold", amu osonong kopio "not feeling very well" and a few other euphemisms. I was genuinely surprised. No one had ever corrected me for my use of the word sumakit before. "Well", I said, "one never stops learning".
For the rest of the party I had to endure the cousins' teasing about that every time somebody asked me where's the hubby. At least I know that the phrase ouruan do sumakit (literally "very sick") is a euphemism for "pass away". Otherwise it would have had become another joke among the cousins.