Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Believe you me

Yesterday I came across a letter sent by a British administrator in Bahr-el-Ghazal in 1918 to his counterpart on the French side of the border apologizing for his inability to come to a meeting. He closed:

"With kind regards, believe you, my dear Sir,
Yours sincerely,
Maud, Captain."

The voice of a dandy suddenly rang out in the silent reading room.

This got me thinking about the different standards of politesse that accompany different languages, and particularly in Arabic, where the first four or five paragraphs of a letter praise Allah and the recipient.

Late 19th century/early 20th century Central Africa saw a momentary surge in diplomatic correspondence in Arabic, thanks to greater integration with the trading societies to the north. Xavier Luffin has written some fascinating articles about the brief flowering of Azande letters to the British, which was quickly squelched by Christian missionaries.

Unfortunately, the recipients of these letters, whether French or English, did not seem to particularly appreciate the salutations extended them by their African interlocutors. Often, translations would include only, "Salutations, etc..."

And yet sometimes those are the parts that communicate the most.

Granted, I did the same.

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