C. Michael Forsyth
KUNDIAWA, Papua New Guinea — The Ngadi tribe has not yet invented the wheel, live in crude dwellings in treetops and call airplanes “sky birds” — yet they communicate almost entirely in sophisticated sarcastic banter!
British anthropologist Bernard Hodgequist made the astounding discovery when he encountered the rarely visited people outside their remote jungle village in the highlands.
“I was surrounded by eight warriors who pointed their spears at me in a menacing manner,” he recounted in the February edition of the New Journal of Exploration. “I’d heard stories that they practiced cannibalism and was fearful for my life. In the language of a neighboring tribe who live 250 miles away, I said, ‘Are you going to eat me?’ The leader of the group replied, ‘No, we’re not going to eat you. We’re going to worship you as a god.’
“Surprised, I said, ‘Really?’ The warrior said, ‘Oh yes, we’re going to build a temple for you 100 feet high and we will supply you with 20 virgins. Is that not true, men?’
“Another warrior shook his head and said, ‘No, that’s not true. We can only provide you with 15 virgins and five girls who are not very experienced. Would that be good enough, O Great White One?’ He seemed to be sneering.”
The anthropologist was roughly escorted to the primitive village where, to his relief, the chief spared his life. As they sat around the fire, he was served a bowl of ground grubs for supper.
“I took a whiff of it and asked the chief politely if they had anything else,” Hodgequist recalled. “He told me, ‘Yes, we have some smoked salmon in the back. Would you like some?’ ”
“I realized he was having a bit of fun with me and it’s then that it dawned on me that I’d stumbled onto something quite extraordinary.”
Linguists who’ve since analyzed more than 1,000 hours of recordings of the Ngadi talking with each other have confirmed that at least 75 percent of what they say is sarcastic. The trait is evident even in non-verbal speech; the sarcastic clap is their most common hand gesture.
“It’s extraordinary. In virtually every other way, their civilization is at the Stone Age level, but their sense of irony is extraordinarily developed,” notes Dr. Anne Kipling-Westcott of the London Institute for Linguistics and Translation. “The reply to a question such as, ‘Should we build a fire’ might be ‘No, I think we should wait here for lightning to strike.’ ”
The expert calls the peculiar adaptation analogous to the ancient Macedonian dialect in which every question was answered with a question (known as reflexive interrogative speech).
How the Ngadi developed their unique form of communication remains a mystery. The British explorer Phillip Stanley – grandnephew of the famous African explorer – vanished in the region in the early 1930s, and one researcher speculates that he introduced to the tribe the brand of biting wit for which he was well known. But there is no evidence the adventurer ever crossed the Ramu River into Ngadi territory.
Hodgequist says his two-month stay among the sardonic tribesmen often felt surreal.
“One would be sitting on a rock helping to dip arrowheads in poison and a pair of women in loincloths with baskets on their heads would sashay by, making snarky comments about their peers like American teenagers at a mall,” he writes in the article.
“The chief had the most devastating wit of them all. It was as if you were with a half-naked Oscar Wilde with a bone through his nose.”
Copyright C. Michael Forsyth