Last week I had a terrible yet fascinating experience with Somali language and culture. A young son of Somali parents tragically died near us. In community solidarity, my family went to the local mosque for the funeral. At the funeral were hundreds of Somalis, plus a handful of non-Muslim community members.
My main reason for going was solidarity with the family and community, but I would have liked an opportunity to chat in Somali. The crowds of people constantly moving and the fact that very few people would look me in the eye didn’t allow me to practice my Somali, but that was not a big deal considering my purpose for coming. I greeted a few people in Somali, and thanked them. Beforehand I learned the Somali idiom used at funerals, Allaha u naxariisto “God have mercy.” This is a direct translation of the Arabic الله يرحمه Allah yirxamhu.
I can’t separate language love from solidarity with the people who embody the language. My daughter asked, “Do you really want to go to the funeral or do you just want to practice your Somali?” For me, the two go together. I don’t just want the language—I want to see and connect with the people. For me, studying language and culture separately is nonsense; one always includes the other. As a language-lover I always want to connect, even if I don’t use my language.
Language love helps me to focus on connecting with the people around me rather than be self-conscious. At the end of the prayers, my daughters wanted to offer flowers to the family. Everyone was filing out, and we couldn’t find a good opportunity. We saw the non-Muslims moving out through the crowd, not really interacting with anyone. It was a somber occasion, and definitely chaotic compared to a Christian or Jewish funeral. Nevertheless, I took the flowers and my daughters and said, “Follow me.” Using mostly English and some Somali, the crowd passed us from one person to the next till we found ourselves by the family. One of the boy’s sisters kissed my daughters and thanked us. Used to working through a crowd of people I want to love but don’t understand great, I found and connected to the people we were looking for.
My Somali teacher generously taught me this week about “verbal nouns.” In English gerunds serve this purpose in the context of, for example, “I like eating meat.” He gave me the example, Boggan wuxuu kaa caawin barashada af Soomaaliya, literally, “This [web] page will help you learning Somali language.” In Somali one adds the definite article to the verbal noun, making it even more “noun-y” than the English gerund.
These make reading Somali hard. When I see a definite article, I have to think further whether this is a noun or a verb.
This structure reminds me of Somali’s cousin language, Arabic, which uses verbal nouns instead of infinitives. Ancient Hebrew used this construction, too, though Modern Hebrew innovated a true infinitive, probably due to Indo-European influence via Yiddish, German, and Slavic languages.
What did I do to practice my language this week? Not a whole lot, unfortunately. My current challenge is more, deliberate interactions to practice my language. So difficult when my couch is calling to me.
I’ll start at work this week, in sha allah…
How do your languages connect you to others?
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