Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Kamuga Junku

Posted by Neal on April 17, 2008

Sometimes I find myself singing,

Kamuga junku, kamuga junku!

What does kamuga junku mean, you wonder? Well, me too. Unlike the helpful lyrics of “Hakuna Matata”, which explain very clearly that the phrase means “No worries,” the lyrics to “Kamuga Junku” state that there are no easy solutions for understanding this phrase:

Kamuga junku, kamuga junku!
There is no English equivalent.
Kamuga junku, kamuga junku!
Kamuga junku, kamuga junku!

The song is from a limited-edition 1987 cassette from a Houston-based band known as The Blanks. It was a limited edition because they made the album for their high school economics class, to sell for play money in a pretend marketplace as part of a toy economy that the teachers set up that week. I hadn’t played the tape in probably 20 years, but like that other song I wrote about, “Kamuga Junku” surfaces now and again as an earworm for a day or so. One day it happened while I was online, so I Googled the phrase. And what do you know — at long last, I found the English translation!

Well, no. But I did find that this hard-to-find album was available, digitally remastered, on CD! So now I have “Kamuga Junku” on CD, in my computer, and on my iPod. I played it in the car today, in fact. I got to thinking, though: When I first listened in 1987, I took the songwriters’ word for it that there was no English equivalent. But having read this 2003 Language Log post by John McWhorter, I’m more skeptical of these kinds of claims of linguistic exoticism. In this post, McWhorter reviews a book by someone named Mark Abley, and is impatient with Abley’s penchant for saying things like, “I had the impression that a three-hour philosophy seminar had just been compressed into a couple of minutes” regarding a revelation from a Mohawk speaker that in Mohawk, the same word means both “righteousness” and “law”. Here’s my favorite bit of McWhorter’s post:

Elsewhere in the book Abley marvels that the Boro language has words that mean specific things like “to love for the last time” and “to feel unknown and uneasy in a new place.” Okay — but English has a word for when two acquaintances, through sharing an experience or reminiscence, experience a sense of deeper connection for the first time: BONDING. How spiritual we English speakers must be … then — get this — we have a word for the first time a couple has sexual intercourse: CONSUMMATE.

So this stuff about there being no English translation for kamuga junku just won’t fly. There’s definitely an English translation. It’s probably not a single word, and maybe not a single phrase, or even a single clause. Maybe it would take a whole page of English to capture the full meaning of kamuga junku, or a whole book, but there is, there must be, an English equivalent!

4 Responses to “Kamuga Junku”

  1. Viola said

    Have you consulted The Blanks? Perhaps they set the pace for street-b(ph)onics and it’s actually an acronym and stands for “Kan’t Always Make Uh Grand” (especially while playing this ecomonic game with fake money) “Just Uh Nuther Kid…..U?”
    We need more information in order to help you with this earworm problem/virus-type thingy you’ve been perplexed with lately. Could you type out a couple of lyrics? Please….help us help you.

  2. Ran said

    Off-topic: The president of the Human Rights Campaign just sent out an e-mail that included this sentence:

    “For these clergy, it is a pastoral issue-an issue that demands a pastoral response including speaking out in the public square for equality and dignity for those for whom they love and care.”

    The non-pied-piped version is fine:

    “[…] whom they {love ____} and {care for ____}.”
    or perhaps
    “[…] whom they {love and {care for}} ____.”

    but in pied-piping it, the writer (or editor) has apparently implicitly raised the “for”:

    “[…] whom they {love and care} for ____.”
    “[…] for whom they {love and care}.”

    I’m not sure if it exactly counts as right-node wrapping/FLoP coordination, since (1) the “for” isn’t really the rightmost node, and (2) it’s just an implicit step on the way to obeying the “never end a sentence with a preposition” rule; but I’ll leave that for you to judge. (And please say so if any of my explanation here is wrong, or wrong-term-using.)

  3. Ran said

    BTW, I’m not sure it’s fair to say that there must be an English equivalent. Certainly it must be possible to offer some explanation in English, but if that explanation requires more than a sentence or two, it’s probably not equivalent in cultural impact.

  4. Neal said

    Ran:
    Regarding the off-topic coordination, at first I didn’t think it was like a RNW, but looking more closely at it, I think it follows the pattern, just backwards. Instead of [A and B] C D, we have D C [B and A], where D = ‘for’, C = ‘whom they’, B = ‘love’, and A = ‘care’. Even so, it still has a different feel to me from the RNW’s I’ve dealt with. I have an analysis that covers those that involve phrasal verbs (turn in) or verbs with resultative phrases (tear in half), but not others that I’ve written about. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t handle this one, either. And though I don’t have the evidence to prove it, this example strikes me as a production error; the guy meant to say “for whom they care” but at the last second decided to throw a “love” in there, too.

    As for the English equivalent of kamuga junku, you have a point. If conciseness is taken into account, a paragraph-long explication shouldn’t really count as equivalent; there should be a listeme (i.e. an item in the mental dictionary, whether single- or multi-word) that covers the concept. As it happens, though, the last track of the album is “Kamuga Junku II”, and it ends with the words, “There is no English translation,” a much stronger claim indeed. In response to that claim, I think my argument stands.

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