Sunday, April 11, 2010

kalaas u wolof, jeex na (wolof class is finished)

This past Thursday was the final Wolof class for me and the rest of the Wells/Mount Holyoke gang.  It represents the first “last” of my time here in Dakar, and that makes me prematurely nostalgic.  I remember our very first session, when our bright-eyed and boubou-clad professor, Sidy Guèye, explained the nicknames he had received while teaching Peace Corps trainees: his students called him Skinny Sidy, and Q-Tip.  They weren’t being mean, exactly—he is really, really skinny (“sew” in Wolof).  

I can safely say that we all loved him immediately, and he was equally in love with our group of eight eager young women.  We laughed, we asked questions, we pursued the tiniest points of grammar and pushed him to explain more and more complicated things (we were learning “very HIGH Wolof,” he would say, shaking his head at our precociousness).  He never got to finish any of his lesson plans with us. 

He is surely the best language teacher I’ve ever had, and one of the best teachers I’ve ever seen “work” a classroom.  I’m not so sure whether I know enough Wolof to have a conversation about anything except where I’m from, or how expensive something is (crucial while bargaining), but Wolof’s usefulness really lies in how happy Senegalese people become when they realize I can speak even a few words of Senegal’s almost-national native tongue.  Everybody lights up: “Yow, degg nga Wolof?”  You, you understand Wolof?  “Waaw, tuuti rekk.”  Yes, I respond, only a little.

Our class - photo credit to Emily Matthews

Here are some cool things about Wolof that have fascinated me over the course of the semester. (Even if you never come to Senegal, it’s neat to know how other languages organize thought and least, I think so.) This summary will serve a double purpose of introducing you to Wolof and helping me study for my final exam (an oral exam) on Tuesday afternoon.

Wolof officially has two verb tenses: accompli and inaccompli (or "happened" and "not yet happened"). There are, of course, many other ways that the necessary nuances of tenses are expressed ("happening," "used to happen," "has happened," "will happen," "might happen"), but they all fall into these two fundamental categories. Wolof also has two types of verbs: active (external, doing things) and passive (internal, feeling things). Verbs are not conjugated, though sometimes suffixes are added to manipulate their tense and meaning. Instead of conjugating verbs, you conjugate pronouns--that is, there's something like 16 different categories of pronouns that will reflect the tense of the verb. Let me make the value of this grammatical aspect clear: there are no irregular verbs to memorize. Incredible. I'd much rather memorize all of Wolof's pronouns than all of quirky endings of random French verbs. Of course, no language is "logical," except maybe Esperanto, but for me, this is as good as it gets.

Before I make it sound too good, Wolof also has its tricky moments. The word “the,” for instance, is technically different for almost every noun—though, luckily for us at such a basic level of communication, all the “thes” can be replaced by one word, “bi” (or “yi,” if it’s a plural). Also, the word “very” is technically different for every adjective it is describing, but this, too, can be replaced by one “very,” “lool.” And on that note, all adjectives are really verbs—that is, there is no word that means “red,” but instead a word that means “to be red.” Get it?

And Wolof is the most fun, for me, when it gets to describing extremes. If you want to say dinner was REALLY tasty, you say: “neex na LOOOOOOOOL” and just draw out the sound. And if you’re describing a very pretty woman, she’s a “jigeen bu rafet-a-rafet-a-rafet,” saying “pretty” over and over again in a long chain. And so on—extending or repeating or doing whatever you’re linguistically allowed to do in order to express your enthusiasm.

I still understand very little of conversations around the dinner table, but I don’t mind. The sound of it, spoken in the happy voices of the people I love, communicates a great deal nonetheless. Learning another language in another language (Wolof through French) has been an adventure, too—and the adventure continues, even if the class does not.

1 comment:

  1. LOVED this post (looool!!!). I miss Wolof tons, and you put my favorite aspect of it into words perfectly. I love exaggerating, and that speech pattern has stayed with me, even in English--sometimes to the point of embarrassment! I'm glad you loved Sidy and your class so much! Seems like toubab degg na Wolof bu baax a baax a baax!