Un Seul Mot

December 12, 2009

A few word-related musings, lest you think it’s possible for a linguist to ever stop thinking about language.

Most days, I find myself trying to fit unfamiliar phenomenon into my same old American schema. That is, I observe something and think: “This is weird! Why do people say it this way when I would say it another way? What shared goal do we have that our cultures (or climates or collective memories) make us express differently?”*

This works relatively well with individual words and phrases. For example, ça va? Has (which means, literally, “it goes?) is the pragmatic equivalent of how are you? But it’s often replaced with Comment tu vas?, Chez toi?, Tu es en train? Tu es en forme? and even just Comment? (literally, How do you go? From your perspective? You are in the middle [of doing something]? You are in good shape? And how?) This is a little confusing. I sometimes wonder why they don’t just stick to one thing. But grafted onto the English language, it makes perfect sense. We say not only how are you? but what’s up? What’s new? How’s it going? How’s life? How (are) you doin(g)? and even How is it [today]? with same goal: basic greetings. Thus, I can make sense of the varieties by fitting them into the linguistic patterns I already expect.

Mawu, il fait tellement chaud!**

But I have to abandon my schema to understand the relationship between different languages here. Diglossia (that is, two languages used simultaneously within a community) is diametrically opposed to my linguistic cognizance. You can drive a thousand miles in any direction from Missouri and still speak English; even a Georgian and a Bostonian can understand each other. We tend to exaggerate our regional pride (three words: soda vs. pop) in our linguistic differences because there are so few. Outside immigrant communities, fluency in a second or third or fourth language is something of an aberration.

Here, though, life is totally crazy. Between Fon and French, everyone is bilingual***. Figuring out when to use what (if I were able to do so) would be a fascinating process. I’m reminded that the basic purpose of speaking is communication, and the reason we communicate is to get things done. I would sacrifice the subjunctive for the names of Cotonou neighborhoods any day.

I’m commonly with a Beninese friend trying to negotiate something with a person in a service profession (a zem driver [kakéno in Fon], a waiter, a shopkeeper). My friend will start in textbook French out of courtesy to me. But after realizing that their street cred is dwindling (and therefore, they’re not getting a deal), they switch to Fon, sometimes leaving a few key words in French (prices, for example) so that I can still follow the discussion. When speakers mix the two, it reminds me of Jemez, New Mexico, where Native Americans speak Towa but mix in English words for modern concepts like “marker” and “third grade.” It’s like linguistic symbiosis.

Many people speak a third language. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard a conversation flit lazily back and forth between French, Yoruba and Fon, depending on which is appropriate for any given remark (for example, a joke about the Togolese government — and believe me, there are a lot — might be in Fon, a reference to the Nigerian pop-gospel group Styl-Plus in Yoruba, and a recap of the day’s classes in French). If that weren’t enough, it’s not unusual for me to find other university students who can stumble passably along in English or Spanish. But French is the lingua franca, the language that allows my Togolese and Malian classmates to adapt to school in Benin as easily as I would in Illinois.

In our Anglo-centric orbit, I tend to forget that other languages exist and that other countries communicate just fine without interference from the United States. (Why, despite listening to The World on KWMU every day, was I mildly surprised to find Japanese-Beninese cooperatives and Dutch NGOs in Cotonou? How embarrassing!) But French has long been called (more or less deservingly) the language of diplomacy. At the rentrée solennelle of my department (the ceremonial start of the school year), the panel of five speakers hailed from Benin, Gabon, Denmark, Germany and Belgium. They all spoke French fluently, of course, though technically only the Belgian is (I assume) native. Pretty neat.

A few more technical notes.

(If you don’t also dream of the day you have a paying job so you can subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary, stop reading. I’m a nerd.)

French has, quite literally, thousands fewer words than English. If we assume that speakers of all languages think the same way (rejecting altogether, like most linguists, the weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), this means each word is imbued with more meaning.

Take something as basic as bien, which means, most simply, “good.” It complements all of these phrases: Tu es bien rentrée?  (You got home okay?) Il était bien content. (He was really happy, somewhere between sincerely and very) Tu veux y aller ou bien? (You want to go or what? [but without that impatient note in the English version]) Bien, on peut aller? (So can we move on?), and Le cours, c’était bien passé? (Class went well?) (Not to mention the noun version, as in the translation of John Rawls’ theory of justice, biens primaires: primary goods.) And this is a word that means something similar to its English cousin, benefit.

Faux amis

The words that look like English but mean something tangential, or totally unrelated, are the trickiest. They’re called, fittingly, faux amis (false friends). Here are a few common examples; I’ve taken just their most fundamental meanings. Actuel means “currently.” Réunion and séance both mean, simply, “meeting.” Normal means, often, “proper.” Susceptible means “capable of.” Sûre means “safe.” Quartier means “neighborhood.” Range means “pick up.” Essence means “gasoline.” Salarié means precisely its opposite: “hourly wage-earner.” Evident is stronger than the English; it means “obvious.” Monnaie means “change.” Collier means “necklace.” Crayon means “pencil.” Sensible means “sensitive.Secte means “cult,” but culte means “religious sect.”

As you see, shared roots don’t necessarily make the learning process easy. English may be a West Germanic language syntactically (see “classification and related languages”), but superficially, it’s an incurable romantic: more than half of English words derive from Latin. It’s been hundreds of years, though, since the Battle of Hastings. Languages are too fidgety to sit still for a millennium: we don’t even say groovy anymore.

Sounds and noises

Since French, for better or worse, made its debut here hundreds of years ago, there are plenty of West African peculiarities on all levels****. There’s an evident rhythm to Fon-accented French, since Fon is a tonal language. To my untrained ear, its pitch rollicks up and down, up and down, phrase by phrase; whereas in France, speakers always accent the penultimate syllable of declarative statements. The Beninese rhythm distorts the standard pronunciations of words (think of the English “record” the noun and “record” the verb). It’s easier, consequently, for me to understand my friends who speak Yoruba natively and Fon as a second language, rather than the other way around. Yoruba, though it’s also part of the Niger-Congo language family, sounds more mono-pitched.

I’m sure you’ve heard “ Language is only seven percent of communication!” repeated ad nauseam (e.g., uncited in fashion magazines advertising confidence-building mascara). But it’s true that the first thing I noticed about communicating in Benin***** were nonverbal cues: to get someone’s attention, you make an elongated “pssssssst” or a series of tongue-clucking kissy sounds, like the tsk-tsk you make to a cat or dog. It makes sense to me to use these noises to call a zem driver over (or rather, under) the din of traffic. But they’re also used, with no disrespect, to attract the attention of waiters, police, even professors. Also, to express surprise (where we might gasp or screech What!?), the Beninese have a high-pitched ehhh! (as a consequence of tonal Fon, it’s always the same pitch) that I’ve already accidentally adopted.

A word or two.

Now that I’ve been here a while, I can affirm that the differences are more than sound-deep. Morphologically, for example, the Beninese say fréquenter à for “visit a person,” while in standard French, it’s “visit a place.” And they tend to say doucement! for “Be careful!” or “Watch out!” instead of the standard French attention! The word is translated directly from Fon’s dédé. Both dédé and doucement mean, literally, “gently.” I can imagine it leads to some cultural confusion. A Beninese person will say doucement after running into you, by way of “Excuse me!” But to a French person, this might seem like an accusation.

I’ve noticed a few generational differences: my French host mother says emission for “television show,” her children say serié, and my Beninese friends, more often than not, say film.

There’s also the apporter/amener split. Both words mean “to bring,” but my textbooks told me amener was for people (“I brought him to the airport”) and apporter for things. But most people here use amener for people and things. I’ve been corrected for using apporter!

Most French speakers have the tendency to add quoi (literally, ”what”) at the ends of sentences, and the Beninese do it a lot. It took me a long time to figure out its semantic purpose, since it can’t go with just any sentence. I triumphed in the end, though. I think it’s the equivalent of the Japanese yo (よ), more or less a shorthand “you see.” It’s used by way of explanation, to reinforce that you’re offering new information. In its barest form, it’s used to contradict: “There’s a lot of traffic because of the rain.” “No, it’s because of that accident near the stadium, quoi.” Now it’s expanded, quoi. I also have been searching for an equivalent of the “like” that, like, peppers our speech. The closest I’ve come is fin. If you speak French, let me know if this is accurate.

Finally, I’m learning textspeak: tt is tout (all); 1e is premier (first), s8 is suis (am), o is au (at the). It’s basically phonetic, but it took some getting used to all the same*****.

How you know you’re getting somewhere.

All this would be meaningless if I weren’t internalizing, right? It’s sort of like waking up really, really slowly: I knew how to communicate, suddenly forgot, and now am gradually regaining consciousness. My biggest problem now is that I know I’m making progress, but it takes every neuron I’ve got. So I’m engrossed in conversation when it abruptly occurs to me that My gosh! I’m following this complicated conversation! I’m so awesome! Then boom — the concentration train derails. Here are my six stages of language learning. I’m somewhere between steps four and five.

(1) You dream or talk to yourself in the second language.

(2) You remember the meaning of what someone said but not her exact phrasing (and it’s not because you only caught the key words). For example, you might recall Vous devez aller rather than Il faut aller. In context, both mean “you have to go.”

(3) You can think of a handful of ways a native speaker would say the same thing, like pays x ou y, tel ou tel pays, n’importe quel pays, and pays quiconque, which all mean “a given country.” (literally, “X or Y country,” “such and such country,” “no matter what country,” “whatever country”)

(4) You understand even when you’re not really listening (conversations overheard on the street, snatches of radio, your sociology professor).

(5) You can follow a dinner-table conversation and a TV show at the same time.

(6) You can understand Nietzsche quotes read aloud after six hours of philosophy of human rights class.


* I do this with all things nonlinguistic too. For example, all shopkeepers always put your merchandise in a black plastic bag, no matter how big, how small or how unnecessary. But the explanation is simple: like everyone else, the Beninese want their purchases to be private and secure. But here you mostly travel on foot or on a motorbike, so you might have to carry a lot, and the bags have to be opaque. (We’ll leave aside, for the moment, the proliferation of plastics, and all the discarded bags, which fulfill a role for Cotonou much like tumbleweeds did for the old televised West. We’ll also leave aside that certain Beninese people complain voraciously about the black plastic bags, which they blame on covert Nigerian imperialism.)

** God [Fon], it’s so hot outside! [French]

*** This is a little bit of an exaggeration. Everyone should be bilingual, since school is both obligatory and taught entirely in French. But in reality, not everyone goes to school. That said, in Cotonou, even the unschooled have a limited working French vocabulary.

**** Language is like an animal. If you introduce it to a new ecosystem and let it develop independently from its original environment, there will obviously be mutations over time. The variances I mentioned above omit those things that arise just from climate and culture. For example, even speakers with a meager French vocabulary invariably know the words for “dust,” “mango tree,” “cobblestone,” “muffler,” and “ripe,” even though these might not be essential in French-speaking Europe.

***** After I noticed that all types of businesses — when they’re named at all — have very funny (often devout) names: God Is Everywhere fish shop; Jesus Loves You barbershop; Pleasure construction supplies; Peace Love and Good Taste restaurant; Fire of the Holy Spirit clothing store. 

****** Notice I haven’t even talked about slang, my growing Fon vocabulary, the chasm in comma use between French- and English speakers or the honorific form of “you!” It’s like a cliffhanger. It’s to give you the fun of looking forward to a sequel.

(Un seul mot, by the way, means “just one word.” It’s the title of an uber popular Beninese hip-hop song that has become something of a catchphrase. I’ve even seen it in white-out on a bathroom stall door at an upscale conference center. It’s a bit ironic,  so I took it here to describe the length of my blog entry.)


One Response to “Un Seul Mot”

  1. Kai Schaller said

    I thought it’d be fun to send you a gift subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary, but then I saw the prices! Maybe I can send you a link to dictionary.com instead?

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