When 'welcome' becomes a promise

  • 11 February 2015 | Roela Hattingh
Summer Pasta Plate. Image: mystuart

When you promise someone something, the promise happens as the words are spoken. Fulfilling the promise might occur later, but the promise has been captured in the language act.

The word welcome is often used in the same way. The moment you say: ‘welcome’ whether it’s ‘willkommen’ in German, ‘bienvenue’ in French, ‘karibu’ in Swahili, ‘siya namkela nonke’ in Xhosa, or ‘welkom’ in Afrikaans or Dutch, the welcome is uttered and therefore created.

Or not.

Feeling welcome or being welcomed depends on much more than language; it is bound in other acts, not just speech.

That’s why we ‘roll out the carpet’, we shake hands (originally to show we have no weapons in our hands) we hug (which has similar origins) or simply ‘brofist’. 

Of course there are more unusual and traditional greetings and ways of welcoming people: the Maori rub noses, Tibetans stick out their tongues to prove they are not evil, in the Polynesian island of Tuvalu one presses one’s face to the other person’s cheek and take a deep sniff.

In ancient civilizations, especially where sandals were the chief footwear, hosts would supply water for guests to wash their feet, provide a servant to wash the feet of the guests or even serve the guests by washing their feet.

Yet there are other speech acts that hold the promise of welcome in quite a beautiful and whimsical way.

‘I see you’, made popular by the film Avatar has been a greeting for centuries in Zulu as in, ‘Sawabona.’ The response ‘Sikhona’ means: ‘I am here.’ 

In China people ask ‘chī le ma’ or ‘nǐ chīfàn le ma,’ meaning ‘have you eaten yet?’ Please note that this is not an actual invitation for lunch or supper. 

Closer to home, we have the Sotho greeting: ‘O kae’ which translates directly to ‘Where are you?’ and the answer, like Zulu: ‘Ke teng,’ or ‘I am here’. (As in, I am not somewhere else, you see me as I am, I am completely here.)

Sometimes the words promise a wonderful welcome act: 

‘Hoe lyk dit met ‘n koppie koffie (of ‘n dop)’ or like Marisa Grippa, my friend Slim’s mom says: ‘Do you want a plate of pasta.’

However you choose to be welcoming, make sure you follow through in your every word, gesture and act. So roll out the carpet, make that pot of tea, or pour a glass of wine.

Now, can I have that plate of pasta please.