When I was eleven years old, my mom and I went to the United States to visit her aunt and uncle in Washington, DC. It was my first time on an airplane, and my first time using English for real. I had been learning English for over a year, but had not had the opportunity for an actual conversation.
We met our cousins, and some brought gifts for me. When I thanked them, they said “You’re welcome.” I felt all warm and fuzzy. How nice that these Americans were welcoming me to their country! And not just my family, it seemed everyone was doing their best to make me feel at home. The clerk at the supermarket, the woman selling tickets at the museum, even the waiter at McDonalds; they all told me I was welcome. What a friendly country!
I was translating their words literally. The Dutch version of welcome, “welkom,” is only used in the meaning of welcoming someone to a place. The fact that the phrase “you’re welcome” was a boilerplate reply to a thank-you totally went by me. I smile when I look back how that simple misunderstanding led to me appreciate the people’s responses more.
This got me thinking. When we’re reading old records, we’re reading words from another time, another place, another culture, another language perhaps. We may understand the words, but do we understand their intent? Do we understand how these words were used, what situation they were used in, what they imply about social status, about relationships, about norms? How many misunderstandings lead us to misinterpret our ancestors, to see them in a more positive or perhaps more negative light than they deserve?