Plato once imagined a candle lit in the darkness of a cave. Hold up a kitty-shaped cookie-cutter and there would suddenly be cat all over the walls – the shadow of a cat, that is. In his analogy, the cookie-cutter represents the ideal cat, the genes of the perfect specimen – not ‘a cat’ really, but essential ‘catness’. The gnarly and flickering shadow on the wall however? That is the reality of the individual stray tabby you nearly ran down on the street: chewed ears, sagging belly, crooked tail and all. Conformed and adapted to an unpredictable reality, the bumps and crags on the wall of Plato’s cave, nurture gives nature ‘character’. Wow.
Over 3.5 years living in Indonesia, I finally hit upon what makes bahasa sehari-hari daily lingo so damned funny. I’ll try and project it on a smooth surface for you.
In the propinsi of Jawa Timur, all animals count as fish.
“Ada makanan apa aja di sini Bu?” I asked. “What kind of food do you have, Miss?”
“Ada sayur-sayuran, ada satu ikan, ayam,” she replied. “There’s vegetables, there’s one fish, chicken.”
“Okei, boleh saya pesan ikan sama nasi…sambal dikit yah?” I said. “Okay, could I order fish and rice…a little chili yah?”
“Maaf, cuma ada satu ikan ayam,” she said. “Sorry, there’s only one fish, chicken.”
“Iya Bu, dan saya mau makan ikan tuh sama nasi. Makasih.” I said. “Yah Miss, and I want to eat that fish with rice. Thanks.”
“Maaf, di sini ngga ada ikan lho. Cuma ikan ayam doang!” she said. “Sorry, no damn fish here! Just one fish [of] chicken!”
Minutes passed and we came to an understanding. I had rice and vegetables. There were no fish – only a fish chicken.
The favored article in the rest of the country? Sebuah, meaning ‘one fruit’. I first studied its application to all things fruit-sized, exclusively. Turns out this was only the grammatical ‘cookie cutter’ since then expanded to park ‘sebuah pesawat‘ – ‘one fruit airplane’, and other such imbalanced word pairings.
Without these oddball articles, these most Dadaist of classifiers, we bring home
a cat – and that’s one step closer to suggesting that we’ve invited essential ‘catness’ into our living quarters.
And the humor of it? That relies on there being disparity between ‘the essence of person’ and the proportions and intelligence of the individual standing right in front of you. On the islands it seems as though one calls even the burned and crumbled cookies ‘cookie cutters’. The effect can either be endearing, tongue-in-cheek, or outright sinister.
Can you think of any exemplary English words used to the same effect?