I’m in Guatemala at the moment. I come here once a year with a group called Surgicorps. We’re volunteer surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, technicians, therapists, and interpreters (that’s me) who provide surgical services to people who are so poor that for them, even the almost-free Guatemalan health care system is too expensive. There are a lot of groups like us, actually–you can find them all over the world. What makes Surgicorps special is the set of surgical specialties that we bring with us. One of those is hand surgery. Hand surgery is a very specialized occupation—in the course of learning his trade, our hand surgeon did fellowships in both plastic surgery and orthopedics. A fellowship is about five years, and that’s on top of four years of college, four years of medical school, and a three-year residency—so, these guys are hard to come by.
Every medical and surgical specialty has its central concept, its central concern. In hand surgery, that’s function. When our hand surgeon told me about this, he was talking about the function of the hand–the goal is to take something that isn’t working, and make it able to do things again. Hand surgery is about function in a larger sense, too, though. The thing is: in a country like Guatemala, most people work either in agriculture or in manufacturing, and opportunities for education are few. (In 2010, 31% of the female population was illiterate.) In that kind of economy, for most people it’s the case that either you work with your hands, or you don’t feed your children. Functioning here means doing manual labor, which for men is likely to be farming and for women is likely to include weaving and doing housework. You’ve got a hand that doesn’t function? Then you don’t function.
For women here, part of functioning is making tortillas. Guatemalans might not get much in the way of nutrition, but getting enough calories per se is usually not a problem: when there’s no drought, corn is plentiful and cheap. If a Guatemalan is poor enough, he might be living on tortillas and salt–but, he’s living, not dying. Not from hunger, at any rate. (The top five causes of death in Guatemala: respiratory/pulmonary diseases (influenza and pneumonia), violence, coronary artery disease, diabetes, and stroke.)
You make tortillas with your hands. They’re actually made somewhat differently here in Guatemala, as compared to elsewhere: not so much with the palms, as patted out with the fingers. So, when women show up on screening day with a contracture in one of their hands from a burn, or a cut, or whatever horrid thing has happened to them and won’t let them open their hand all the way, and our hand surgeon asks them what the matter is, they say: No puedo tortillar–I can’t make tortillas–while making a characteristic slapping-your-fingers-together-while-turning-your-hands-over motion.
Here’s a short video that shows you how a Guatemalan woman makes tortillas. Like 70% of the country, she’s Mayan. There are a bunch of things to notice in the clip:
- When the video starts, the language that you’re hearing is one of the 20-22 different Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. (There are some more spoken in Mexico.)
- The women are wearing the traditional clothing of their village. Mayan women most definitely do still wear the traditional clothing, every single day. Choosing not to wear it makes a huge statement about your personal identity and affiliation, and the waiting rooms of the hospital where we do our thing are jammed with people in this kind of clothing. I’ll point out that every village has its pattern of dress, apron, and huipil (the shirt that the ladies are wearing), and leave it at that.
- The lady is cooking over an open fire. Super-common here, and I haven’t yet been here without a few people showing up on screening day to show us their burn-scar-contracted hands.
- The American speaking crappy Spanish. One of the main industries of the town that we’re in is intensive Spanish lessons.
- The lady’s hands are wide open, and fingers are flat–with a contraction like the one that you see above, she couldn’t do it.
- At about 1:05, the verb tortillar.
Tortillar is an interesting little verb (at least if you’re the kind of person who gets excited about verbs). As far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist anywhere else. Here’s where I looked:
- WordReference.com, which has an amazingly complete on-line dictionary. No luck.
- The Bantam New College Spanish and English Dictionary, which is by no means huge, but has excellent coverage of Central American Spanish. (If you’re an American, and therefore don’t know where Guatemala is: it’s in Central America.) Also no luck.
- Google, through which I found a number of blog posts written by people who ran across the word while travelling this part of the world, but no evidence that the word exists anywhere else.
- (I did find a French dictionary of the natural sciences from 1845 that lists the word as the common name of some species of Orme with a tall trunk and small leaves. I have no clue what an Orme is.)
What the verb tortillar means: to make tortillas. It’s a nice example of a verb that comes from a noun–what’s called in linguistics a denominal verb. We have lots of these in English–“bare” or “zero-derived” ones like to tango, to cash, to water; ones made with prefixes, like to defrost and to encage; and ones made with suffixes, like to victimize, to vaccinate, and to classify. (Language geeks: yes, I am leaving out back-formation. No hate mail, please.)
One of the interesting things about the process of making nouns of out verbs is that there is some systematicity to it–there are particular types of relationships that tend to exist between the original noun and the derived verb. You might remember a post in which we talked about the particular kinds of relationships that exist between the nouns in compound nouns, like kitchen knife (knife that is used in a kitchen), bread knife (knife that is used to cut butter), and pocket knife (knife that is carried in a pocket). In that post we talked about how the set of relationships between those nouns is limited, and about how trying to explain that set of relationships is a good example of the issue of falsifiability in scientific theories–if you can posit any old relationship on the basis of any particular compound noun that you happen to run across, then you have a theory that cannot, even in theory, ever be shown to be wrong (“falsified”). That’s a theory that can’t actually be tested, and a theory that can’t be tested is a crappy theory.
How about verbs? Carolyn Gottfurcht wrote a fascinating doctoral dissertation on the subject of denominal verbs and the kinds of relationships that can exist between the original noun and the derived verb. (All of the English verb examples in this post are from her dissertation.) She looked at 8,900 English verbs and found that in that language, one of the most common relationships is what is called the resultative.
The resultative relationship is especially relevant to us today, because that’s what the Guatemalan verb tortillar is based on. The resultative relationship holds between a noun and a verb that is derived from that noun when doing the verb brings the noun into being. For example:
- to granulate: to cause something to exist as granules
- to enslave: to cause someone to be a slave
- to mummify: to cause someone to be a mummy
- to summarize: to cause a summary to exist
- to cripple: to cause someone to be a cripple
This is the kind of verb that tortillar is: to tortillar is to cause tortillas to exist.
Here’s the thing about causing tortillas to exist: if you’re a functioning Mayan woman, that’s one of the things that you do. That’s not the only thing that you do–but, if you can’t do it, you can’t take care of your family. So, when we talk about hand surgery being all about function: it’s about the function of the hand, sure. But: it’s also about the function of the person.
Like the rest of us Surgicorps volunteers, our hand surgeon donates his services, buys his own plane ticket, pays for his food and lodging, and contributes a week of hard-earned vacation. The costs of the surgeries themselves–instruments, medications, dressing materials, anesthetic agents, pain medications, etc.–are covered by Surgicorps. Surgicorps lives or dies on the basis of donations from nice folks like you. Want to make a donation? Click here. $250 will pay for all of the costs of surgery for one patient. $100 will pay for four surgical packs. $25 will pay for a nice lunch for you–or one surgical pack for us. $10 will pay for all of the Tylenol that we’ll send our patients home with all week–and, yes, we send our patients home with nothing stronger than Tylenol, in the vast majority of cases–or, it’ll buy you a latte and a scone. I have nothing against lattes and scones–I’m a big fan of both–but, when you think about it from that perspective, how can you not click on this link and make a donation?
No French stuff today–back to the language of Molière on Monday. Now, donate some money! I’ll stop hitting you up for donations next week.