Languages bring me into a world I do not understand and reveal complexities I never imagined. Sometimes I feel like Darwin in the Galapagos. Study and observation bring me joy, and when I immerse myself in these complex phenomena, I discover deeper truths. The more complexity, the more beauty, even if comprehension eludes me. And exploring the facets of language lead me to the subtle dynamics of the culture around it.
This week I learned that my languages have taught me things that are not widely understood among the people I mix with. On one occasion, I was discussing Somali culture with some local Minnesotans. They were talking about the tribal tension that exists among Somalis, and this dynamic led to the recent Civil War. I don’t know whether this is the case exactly, though I know that tribal divisions cause problems among Somalis. At the same time, I know that Somali culture in Minnesota works hard to deal with this sometimes destructive dynamic. For example, I learned that when you first meet a Somali, you don’t ask where they’re from in Somali. This could lead to tension. In addition, some Somali restaurants in the Twin Cities display a sign “No Qabiil!” meaning “No tribes!” I understand that tribal tension is complex: both an agent of division, and a force people struggle against. I learned this dynamic because of my immersion—as superficial as it is—in local Minnesota Somali culture. Somali culture is more complex than many Minnesotans understand. On another occasion, I learned about political tension in France. While France has experienced liberal hegemony during much of the post World War Two era, that country is feeling the influence of an important conservative party, Le Front National. In a podcast episode I was listening to, I listened to the fascinating story of the internal growth and development of the party, as well as how an ultra-right party gains traction in a very liberal country. Because I was listening to French-language discussion, I discovered the divides and complexities of French society. One could probably learn much of what I know without studying the languages as I do. However, the fact that I am studying the language necessarily immerses me in those other discourses of tensions and paradoxes. I become a person who is dedicated to discover how this “unknown” (to me) people thinks, acts, and reflects. Their day-to-day dialogue—its form and its content—becomes my object of study.
Somali plurals have generated the most amount of work for me these days. I continue to do the very helpful English to Somali translation exercises in my Somali book. Every plural in Somali has three elements in my mind: suffix, stress, and gender category. (The first two are really the same, but because of my Indo-European brain, I have to separate them.) So far I’ve learned seven declensions of Somali nouns. Every noun that one learns belongs to one of these paradigms, and which paradigm is arbitrary. The plural ending of nouns comes from this paradigm but stress shift may play a part, in addition. The stress is not written, so I’m not dealing with that right now; I write much more than I speak. Finally, the gender of a noun in the singular might be different from its gender in the plural, and this determines which article it must take. As a result, I’ve written up some declension tables to make this task more simple. Adjectives and their plurals I’ve found very cool. (I’m like a geologist when it comes to language; when I crack open a rock and see a geode I just gaze at the beauty of the structure for its own sake.) Adjectives form their plural usually through “reduplication,” that is, one duplicates the first syllable of the word and tacks it onto the beginning of the word. For example, quruxsan “beautiful” is qurquruxsan in the plural; fudud “easy, light” becomes fudfudud. Genitives are complicated in their own right in Somali, though I found that my background in Semitic languages helps. In Semitic languages, a genitive is formed by stringing the words together, possessed + possessor, and the thing that is possessed undergoes a change in ending if it is masculine plural or feminine singular. Here are the rules in Somali:
- Somali strings the words together in the same order as Semitic languages: possessed + possessor.
- The stress on the possessor shifts to the end.
- Feminine singular nouns that don’t end in /-o/ may add /-eed/ in the genitive, though this renders the possessor more “generic.”
- Feminine plural nouns that end in /-o/ add /-od/ to the end.
- If a noun is a domestic animal (!) the ending is /-aad/, not /-eed/ or /-ood/.
- The article on the noun in the genitive follows the function of the whole phrase; there is no “genitive” article.
- If an adjective modifies the possessor, that is, comes at the end of the genitive phrase, the adjective simply comes at the end. If an adjective modifies the possessed noun, it is followed by the word ee.
Tough, eh? But gorgeous, no?
What do you find beautiful in your language? What beauty have you found thanks to your language? How have you dealt with overwhelming complexity?
Keeping the dream alive
At work, I managed to attend the German, Spanish, and French tables this week, although Spanish and French were curtailed for me because of other commitments. Because my daughter is working on French, I decided to work on my French, too, so I’ve been looking for podcasts in French. I’ve enjoyed hearing about another political situation than the US, as well as another point of view about global events. Speaking of which, Duolingo seems to be working well with my daughter. She’s doing about 10 minutes per day. When I asked what she was learning, she managed to say “an apple” without much prompting, and then Je mange une pomme “I’m eating an apple.” This is pretty decent, in my opinion, after a less than two weeks, fewer than two total hours. So we’re keeping each other’s polyglot dream alive! (Or I’m keeping my polyglot dream alive in her…) Photo credit: Sarah Treanor, from her “12 Months of Creativity” blog. Used with permission.