Kalougata in the Fijian Bible: Does it mean “blessing” or “curse”?

Kalougata in the Fijian Bible: Does it mean “blessing” or “curse”?

The Fijian word “kalougata” is conservatively understood as the equivalent of the English, “to bless, blessed, blessing” since the arrival of the missionaries in 1835 and the publication of the first Fijian Bible in 1864. However, a new meaning to the word was recently proposed around the turn of the new millennium, and that is about 140 years later. Quite interestingly, the newly proposed meaning of “kalougata” is ironically the very opposite of the widely accepted sense of the word - now proposed negatively as a ‘curse’ instead of ‘blessing’. How has this come about?

According to many Fijians, the conventional meaning of “kalougata” becomes questionable only to a native speaker when one splits up the one word into two separate entities: 1) kalou (literally means ‘god’) and 2) gata (literally means ‘snake’ or ‘sharp’). Here is where the debate arises when one attempts to find the origin of the word or simply the history behind the formation of a word. In scientific or linguistic terms, this refers to the etymology of a word.

As for this example of etymology, one group (a minority) claims that the word ‘kalougata’ is a curse because it appears to be saying “God is a snake” referring to the traditional snake god named ‘Degei’. On the other hand, the majority stick to the word ‘kalougata’ as meaning ‘blessings’ because the word ‘gata’ takes its cue from its ‘sharp and effective’ meaning. Both parties are finding solutions to establishing what the word ‘kalougata’ means through their research and reasoning on the etymological front. But the key question one ought to ask oneself is whether the best solution to this ongoing debate must be based on one’s appeal to etymology.

Based on the general principles and application of language functionality, it is faulty to derive meaning of a word based on etymology alone. Language is not static but keeps on evolving or changing. For example, the young itaukei generation of today are having difficulty in understanding the old or archaic words of the Fijian Bible first printed in 1864. Such basic idea that language changes as proven in many examples throughout the world ought to provide good ground to show that it is faulty to stick to a meaning of a word based on the explanation of the history of how the word came into being (etymology). Let us look at one example below explained by a close friend and linguist, and I quote:

“For a very simple example of etymology, we can take the word “Newtown”, a common name for towns in English speaking countries. We do not need to be a linguist to realize that the name “Newtown” developed out of the combination “new” plus “town”. The history of the formation of the name is also obvious: a town that had existed for a long time became too big for its boundaries so a new settlement some distance away from that town was founded and referred to as the “new town,” as distinct from the “old town.” Eventually after long usage, “new town” became a proper name: “New Town”, and after a much longer time, most likely after the “New” in the name was no longer felt to have any relevancy, the two parts of the name merged in pronunciation and eventually in spelling as one word “Newtown”. In many cities in the English speaking world there are “Newtowns” which are now suburbs and are no longer perceived in any way to be new towns in any sense. In fact, people can live in a suburb called Newtown all their lives without realizing the etymological meaning of the name. The individual meanings of the parts of the word are forgotten and only a name without any particular perceived meaning remains.”

With reference to the example above, the same can be asked to people in Fiji who live in Newtown, a suburb in Nasinu town about 5 miles from Suva. Do the dwellers of Newtown realize the etymological meaning of the name of their suburb? Or even the people of Valelevu (next suburb to Newtown where the Nasinu township is located) can be asked whether they care about the historical meaning of Valelevu (“Vale” meaning ‘house’ plus “levu” meaning ‘big’, hence, ‘big house’ as opposed to the traditional ‘Chiefly house’). My guess is that the name Valelevu was historically given its name since it was the location of the Housing Authority headquarters which was most probably the biggest building (8 storeys) built outside of Suva during those early days in the 1970s (still there today). In addition, other names of suburbs in Suva that can be added to these examples include Raiwaqa [“Rai” (to look) plus “waqa” (boat)], hence the meaning ‘boat or yacht look-out’. And also its neighbour, Raiwai, where “Rai” (literally means ‘to look;) plus “wai” (lit. means, water/sea) probably got its name because it provided a good look-out to the sea. Based on all these examples, one can only wonder if people really bother to discover the historical meaning or the significance of these names. I would presume that not everyone really cared about the historical development of these names which were purely names of places where people live.

Interestingly, the habit of trying to give deeper explanations of important words by appealing to their etymologies has been an ongoing practice in the Church by ministers, theologians, and even including many bible scholars. One well known scholar who used to do this is William Barclay. Also, in a relatively large way, certain reference books in many theological colleges and schools would be encouraging this practice since they specifically look at the etymology of biblical words (Greek and Hebrew), and such reference books are “The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” and “The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament.” However, all this was challenged and brought to an end to a large extent quite recently by a Scottish bible scholar by the name of James Barr. What was arguably the most influential work of the Rev’d Professor James Barr (died in 2006) was his book ‘The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961)’, in which he criticized the tendency of many scholars to rely on linguistically flawed arguments, such as arguments from etymology or based upon misconceptions about the relation between Hebrew thought and language.

Hence, we can boldly say that Professor Barr shocked the scholarly world by pointing out that it is totally unscientific to appeal this way to the etymology of a word. The etymology of a word is of historical interest only. Only the meaning of a word as it is used by people in contemporary, everyday speech is its true meaning, no matter how it developed historically.

Having said the above, perhaps one may still argue that the true meaning of the word “kalougata” can also be determined in this way. This is to say that maybe it was true that the word kalougata was derived from “kalou” (god) and “gata” (snake) many hundreds of years ago, but this should be proven rather than just asserted. Also, the Fijian word “gata” also takes up the meaning ‘sharp or active’. For the advocates of the latter meaning of “gata” as sharp (hence, “kalougata” to mean “sharp God”), that too needs to be proven rather than just asserted. So the appeal to etymology by both parties is totally contrary to the science of linguistics, let alone common sense, since the word “kalougata” in modern everyday Fijian simply implies the meaning “blessed, or blessing, or bless.” It was a word already in existence prior to the missionaries’ arrival. And research has also proven that before the issue of kalougata was on the debate table, any ordinary Fijian speaker who used the word never thought of either the snake nor a sharp ornament like a sword when referring to the word. It was a good and valuable word then, and requires the same respect it deserves today and in the future.

Further, another classic example of another Fijian word which also begins with ‘kalou’ (god) is the word “kalouca”. The word ‘kalouca’ is conventionally understood as “less fortunate” or ‘having missed something that is good or positive’. That is the accepted meaning. However, if we dissect the word again just like the word ‘kalougata’, we would end up with the same problem again. My guess that it would be quite interesting to discover what people may think about based on its etymology (‘kalou’ – literally meaning ‘god’ plus “ca” – literally meaning “bad’). I hope they will not come up with new meaning to this word such as “God is bad” or “curse God”. Finally, and on a lighter note, the word ‘abundance’ in English has a straight forward meaning, denoting, ‘plentiful, in large supply, rich, lavish, etc.’ Who on earth would ever like to split up this word, with application to etymology, and then come up with a totally absurd new meaning such as, “a bun is dancing” or “a bun dance”.



(Excerpt of a Paper presented by Apenisa K. Lewatoro at the UBS ATCON Hong Kong, 2010)







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