Friday, May 23, 2008


Puu and Pee

Any Latin teacher can tell you about the giggles that erupt in the classroom the first time the vocabulary word homo is introduced. The same thing happens in German class with fahrt.

I am just as immature as beginning students of Latin and German. Yesterday I could not suppress a laugh when someone who works with immigrants told me that, among the Karen of Burma, the terms of respect for elderly men and women are poo and pee respectively. With reduplication, my informant said, these terms become poo poo and pee pee. I give the phonetic spelling.

Not wanting to be the unwitting victim of a joke, I sought independent verification. According to Sandy Barron et al., Refugees from Burma: Their Backgrounds and Refugee Experiences (Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics, 2007), p. 39, pu means grandfather in Sgaw Karen, and pi means grandmother.

See also p. 77:
Karen commonly do not call each other by name, but use instead titles like Grandfather, Auntie, Sister, and so on. It is startling for a Karen to be addressed by name only. Here are a few common titles...
In the table that follows on p. 77, puu is the Karen equivalent of English grandfather, pee of grandmother.

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