This column is about words. More specifically, it is about words that have no direct translation in English. If words give shape to thoughts and communication, then hopefully these words can provide you, dear reader, with more eloquent and shapely thoughts. This week’s word is ‘Ilunga’ [ee-LOON-gah] an elegantly succinct word from Tshiluba, a Bantu language spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ilunga is used to describe someone “ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.” Ilunga is of interest because it conveys a complexity of meaning, with three distinct emotional responses expressed in a single lexical unit. Ilunga does not suggest merely a ‘three strikes policy.’ It also captures the dynamic process of a gradual shift in attitude from tolerance to intolerance. Ilunga describes a world that is not black and white, but rather a world with continuous and evolving shades of meaning.

These shades of meaning can be understood as a consequence of imperfect information. In everyday life we are never presented with the full set of facts surrounding any event or person. Putting aside questions about the existence of an ‘objective’ world (an ontological question which is prone to cause paralytic breakdowns in the author), the crucial point is that our perception of whatever is happening at any given moment is going to be constrained by the limitations of human nature. There is only a finite amount we can see, hear and think when making sense of an infinitely complex reality. One can never truly ‘know’ someone or something. You can see more of their character or learn more about their history, but in the end this remains only a partial impression of the totality. Faced with this problem we can make do, but our understanding is going to be at best a provisional heuristic for understanding what is actually happening. This suggests that we should constantly adapt and update what we think about the world as we get new information. Unfortunately this can be rather hard, and people are usually bad at this form of Bayesian reasoning. If you are familiar with the ‘Monty Hall Problem,’ you will know what I mean.

Therefore, ilunga. You treat someone differently based on what they do, but this is an evolution or a dynamic which occurs over time, and not something clean and clear-cut. This is particularly interesting when considered in the context of Bantu philosophy. The Bantu conception of time is rather unique.  For the Bantu, time is not an independent attribute. Time is instead tied up with space and events to weave a compositional picture of the set of events around the present. The future is either no-time, because it is simply too uncertain and not causally coupled with the now, or it is potential-time, if it is a relatively inevitable event like the rising of the sun. This conception of time takes the acceptance of imperfect information to the extreme, as in it the existence of things and time can only be related to things which are knowable in the present. All other events are treated as radically uncertain. A word of warning: lecturers tend not to be receptive to my explanations of why I need an extension of assessments. If you intend to contemplate such questions, I would recommend doing so with a brandy sour, accompanied by some Ali Farka Toure. Gomni in particular has melodic tunes well suited to existential ponderings.

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