Language and Life
Precedence and Dependence
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
Gladys had an office next to mine, in a small corner of the building in Westlands, Nairobi. Beth had come and did not know Gladys was here, because Gladys' door was shut. She wrote a message, which she slipped under Gladys' door. Then she left.
When I saw Gladys shortly after, she said about Beth, "She came when I was here." What did she mean?. She was still there! Gladys explained. She meant that she had been in the office when Beth put the message under her door. She had seen the message sliding under her door.
Which is First?
There are two events involved in the report: "She came" and "I was here." The order of the events and the position of "when" tells you which event was dependent on the other. An American would say, "I was here when she came." This is the opposite order from Gladys' report.
Or an English speaker might also say, "She came while I was here." The word while indicates a period of time within which something else happened. There is a big difference between while and when!"
What is involved here are the principles of precedence and dependence. These are relational concepts all cultures deal with in analyzing and reporting events. Which event depends on the other? This seemingly simple question actually depends on language and worldview.
To a native English speaker, the first event mentioned is normally the precedent event. This is the event situation that formed the basis or the context of the second, dependent event.
In the English worldview, the basic situation or background, or precedent, is "I was here." The dependent event then is stated: "When she came."
Each language has a way to indicate which event or situation sets the stage (the precedent event) and which depends on that precedent situation (the dependent event). Investigate your target language to discover its pattern of precedence and dependence.
Inclusion and Exclusion
Precedence and Dependence are related to Inclusion and Exclusion. This involves including a person or thing within a group, or indicating a person or thing as excluded from a group of similar people or things.
Languages express inclusion and exclusion differently. The concept is conceived differently by different cultures. Here is a pattern I have heard often in Africa. Logically, it sounds strange to a native English speaker.
The African speaker will say, in Swahili for instance: "No one was there. But Kamau was there." The first is a definitive, absolute statement. So is the second.
In English, these two sentences are contradictory, because they are both definitive. Two absolute statements are making claims that cannot coexist! If no one was there, then Kamau could not possibly have been there. Because Kamau is someone!
When an African says this in English, they are trying to express an African language expression of inclusion in English. This is the syntax of the Swahili (or Kikuyu or other Bantu language) sentence.
It is mis-translated, because the concept of inclusion is different. The result may be uncertain. Or the result may be humor. The English speaker will hear the structural and logical contradiction, rather than the idea the African intended to communicate. Each language set represents a different logical system of assumptions and conclusions from its own worldview.
An American speaker of English would express this concept in one of these ways:
No one else was there except Kamau.
No one except Kamau was there
The English structural rules require a single statement, which is qualified by the word "except." No one is qualified by the except phrase. Kamau is excluded from No one.
Various languages have various structural ways of dealing with the real-world logic of Inclusion and Exclusion, just as they vary with Precedence and Dependence. Work beyond the language into the worldview logic it represents.
From the examples you hear, try to discern the structural organization of relationships and social order expressed in the language forms. Logic varies with culture and language. It can be confusing when using a language in a different cultural setting from its "home culture."
This article originally published in the series "Language and Life," in Afri-Com, a communication journal, Nairobi, Kenya, June 1997
Website version written and posted on OJ Thoughts and Resources 17 February 2003
Revised 9 January 2008
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1997, 2003
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.