As I said in “practical tips, part 1,” languages don’t require a book to learn. They only require a community. Books help when you don’t have people around, but when you meet people who speak your language, make the most of the encounter. Introduce yourself, tell them how much you love their language, and see if they can help you advance. When I saw this sign, I knew I needed some help.
Doing the necessary work
The next time I went downtown, I saw at the light rail stop an advertising campaign consisting of multiple signs, each in Spanish, Hmong, or Somali. I wanted to learn more about the one depicted to the right.
a fire to be tended
dab qoryo (xaabo) u baahan
I recognized a couple of words: dab “fire” and qoryo “wood.” Please don’t underestimate how awesome I felt to see two words I actually knew in a single sentence!
As I was walking down the sidewalk towards my meeting, I was thinking about the sign. “Firewood”? That word doesn’t occur in the English. How odd that seemed! Was I understanding it correctly?
Why wonder? I stopped the next Somali folks I saw and asked.
Miyaad hadashaa afka soomaaliga? “Do you speak Somali?” (From my last encounter! See how one encounter builds on another?)
I asked about the photo. What does the Somali mean? Does it match the English? We had a pleasant, helpful conversation.
The creators of the sign had a linguistic difficulty to deal with, I found out. The conversation revolved around the word xaabo, in parentheses. The phrase dab qoryo means the same as xaabo, except that the former phrase is used in the South of Somalia, and the latter in the North. The majority of Minnesota Somalis are more southern, but the Somali community tries its hardest not to favor any group over another to allay historic clan rivalries, hence the inclusion of both dialects on the sign.
Not a precise translation
The Somali is literally translated as, “Firewood is needed for (it).” No word for “tend” appears in Somali.
Knowing that every Somali can recite endless proverbs, I asked if there was a Somali proverb for the basic idea behind the English, that if you don’t keep working, what you did will be for nought. Here’s what he told me:
Qof aan shaqeysanin shah waa ka xaraan.
“The one who doesn’t work lacks tea.”
Was I able to transcribe it right away? No way! I had to text some friends and ask some folks at work to get their revisions. After I tried my best, I asked some people at work. They corrected some things. Then I Googled it to see what I could find. I found a similar phrase, but not exactly the same. Finally, I texted a friend, and he confirmed that I had finally gotten it correct.
I think I earned my tea in this exercise! It certainly forced me to work, but I spent lots of great time talking to Somalis.