Monday, February 4, 2013

Armchair linguist

One of the most unique—and challenging—componenents of Peace Corps service is that volunteers must learn and speak the local language of where they work. This often means forgoing a country’s colonial language (often French or Spanish) and instead learning the indigenous language, which allows volunteers to work closely with people who need the most help. In Madagascar, French is the language of business and government because it was a French colony until 1960. But the majority of people here speak Malagasy on a daily basis, not French. And getting outside of larger towns and into the countryside, where fewer people have gone to lycee and almost no one has gone to university, French is rarely spoken at all. So when Peace Corps trainees arrive in Madagascar, they are given 2 months of intense Malagasy training before setting off to their sites: 1 month of learning Malagasy officiel, the standard dialect and the one that’s spoken in the highlands (the capital region), and after they learn where their site location will be, another month of either continued study of officiel, or of one of the 17 other Malgasy dialects. Each of the dialects corresponds with the tribe that has settled in a particular region of the country. In my area (Vangaindrano), most of the people are of the Antesaka tribe, so I learned the Antesaka dialect. But if you go up the road 80km north to Farafangana, you’ll be in Antefasy land, so the dialect spoken there is Antefasy. However, unlike many other African countries, the dialects are fairly similar, and most Malagasy people can understand one another, even if one person is from up north near Diego Suarez, and another person is from down south near Ft. Dauphin. My dialect (along with the other Sud Est dialects of Antefasy and Antemoro) are notable for turning all “s” sounds into “sh” sounds, a fact that some of my more northernly peers like to laugh at. (So for example, the word misy, which means “there is/there are” is pronounced “meesy” in other areas, but “meeshy” in mine.) My dialect also has a fun habit of shortening words by dropping the final syllable, especially if the word end in –na, and also boasts lots of local colloquialisms like Da ta andra? Ao ka!, which basically means “what’s up? Not much!” but would never be said anywhere outside the Vangaindrano region.

The famed naturalist Gerald Durrell writes in his book The Aye-Aye and I that “Malagasy is a fine, rackity-clackity, ringing language which sounds not unlike someone carelessly emptying a barrel of glass marbles down a stone staircase.” I don’t know if I would make that exact same colorful comparison (although Durrell certainly does have a flair for language), but I have many days when I truly do think people are rolling rocks around in their mouth. My language challenge has always been more with understanding than with speaking, and that hasn’t changed in my experience here. I’ve struggled (and continue to struggle) greatly with understanding what people are saying, and find myself frustrated on a daily basis that I can’t express myself the way that I want to.  I do have to remember, though, that I have more of an uphill battle than other volunteers, because it’s commonly remarked that language gets more difficult the further south you go, and I live in one of the most southernly towns of all the volunteers here. In the countryside towns that surround Vangaindrano, people’s accents become even thicker and their speech more rapid, which makes it incredibly difficult to understand them. Unfortunately, this is also a country that isn’t known for its dental care, so there are many people with missing or no teeth, which makes comprehension even more mind-boggling.

The Malagasy language itself is a bit of a mystery that is both a linguist’s and anthropologist’s dream: its closest relative is an Indonesian dialect spoken by one particular tribe on the island of Borneo. This gives credence to the theory that Madagascar was first settled by migrants from Indonesia, who traversed the precarious Indian Ocean on a raft for months on end. Malagasy also contains elements borrowed from Arabic, such as the days of the week and the greeting salama; this is due to the presence of Islamic traders who settled in Madagascar several hundred years ago.  And owing to the French colonial influence It also has a large number of Malagasy-fied French words. Malagasy uses no article, so words borrowed from French simply take the “le/la” and string it together with the actual word. So for example, the French for key, la clé, became lakile in Malagasy. (The alphabet does not contain the letters C, Q, U, W, and X.) La biére (beer) became labiera; la bougie (candle) became labozia. Other words are changed only slightly, such as legume, which became legioma. And a large number of French words were simply adopted wholesale, such as verre (glass), restaurant (no translation needed), and epicerie (small grocery store).

Malagasy is a comparatively easy language to learn because there are simply not that many words—one word could have 3 meanings. But this is at once both simplifying and maddening. For example, the word sahirana means “busy”, but it also means “stressed” or “worried”. So if I want to ask my counterpart if she is busy (a fairly common thing for Americans to ask in the workplace), there really isn’t a great way to do it. The all-encompassing phrase tsy mety literally means “not good”, but is also really the only way to say that someone is being rude. If I want to explain to a kid why he shouldn’t yell “vazaha!” at me, I want to be clear that it’s more than just “not ok”, it’s rude, but there literally isn’t a word for that. And the often-used word mazotoa means “good luck” or “have fun/enjoy”. But if my neighbor is on his way to take the baccalaureate exam, I don’t really want to say “enjoy the test!”—I want to wish him luck. This prevention from being specific is one of the language’s most frustrating aspects. However, my least favorite part of the language is that there is no verb “to be”. Think about how often you use some form of this verb, either in English or French, and you’ll realize how exasperating this is.

However, despite the annoyances, Malagasy does have some amusing quirks and features. I’ve written before that perhaps my favorite word in the language is mitsangatsangana, which means to take a walk for pleasure. It wasn’t until I’d spent a couple months studying Malagasy that I learned the utility behind this word, which is fairly fun. Malagasy employs a pattern whereby if you repeat the second half of a verb, it weakens it. So in the case of mitsangatsangana, it means “to sort of amble around”, whereas its parent, so to speak, is simply mitsangana, "to stand" (I guess if you're not really standing, that means walking around.) Same for the verb “to go”, mandeha, which becomes mandehadeha when you’re talking about just kind of meandering along. And one of my most frequent jokes is when people remark with surprise that I can speak Malagasy, by saying mahay miteny ‘Gasy enao!, I self-deprecatingly respond with ehhhh…. mahayhay fotsiny iaho (I can only sort of speak it), and this unfailingly causes a round of chuckles. This repetition/weaking utility is also employed with some nouns, most notably colors: the word manga mean “blue”, but mangamanga means “light blue”.

In all my struggles with the language, I try to remind myself that I’m lucky that I didn’t have to learn a new alphabet, or one of those notorious African languages with clicks and other unwritable sounds. And when I get depressed about my lack of language skills, it’s important to remember that I’ve only been studying and speaking Malagasy for a year—I spent 10 years becoming fluent in French. But above all, I’m proud to be able to (sort of) speak Malagasy because it sets me (and other PCVs) apart from your average French-speaking foreign aid worker or European tourist. It allows us to gain the trust and respect of the people of Madagascar, and well, let’s be honest: being able to blow someone’s mind by being a white person who speaks Malagasy will never get old.


  1. The Malagasy sentence structure is Verb-Object-Subject. Its advantage is that there is no conjugation and there are only 3 tenses (Past, Present, Future). At the beginning of the verb, you use "N" for the past, "M" for the present, and "H" for the future.
    If any of your relatives and friends wanna know more about the Malagasy language, check out this Encyclopedia of Madagascar and Malagasy dictionary (for free) (available in Malagasy, French, and English)
    Comment for the last sentence: RPCV Madagascar should start a tumblr blog called ""
    (No racism intended! This is a joke inspired from this tumblr blog " "

  2. Great post! The title caught my attention as I'm a PCV in Indonesia. Learning Indonesian and Javanese has also been similarly frustrating and entertaining. No "to be" verb here either and lots of repeated words!

  3. Thanks Matthew! I am thinking about Indonesia as a COS trip destination and I am so curious to hear if there are any similarities between the languages. Do you know an ed PCV named Joey Taylor? He started in Indonesia last April-- he's my close friend's little brother.

    1. Haha, yeah I know Joey! We started service at the same time, good guy that Joey. I definitely recommend Indonesia. A friend's friend came to visit after finishing service in Rwanda - she had a great time. I'd be happy answer any questions you might have (I'm sure Joey could too).

      Judging by the above comment, it looks like there's not a lot of overlap between languages. Indonesian is really a dialect of Malay (used to be lingua franca throughout the islands). Indonesian is Subject-Verb-Object and it has no tenses. Javanese is more complex, it has three levels of politeness.