Friday, November 27, 2015

Breaking the "dialect barrier"*

You hear a lot about "language barrier" - a term that I for one would just as soon replace with "language divide" or "language gap" - but what about navigating the less daunting but sometimes trickier differences between dialects or varieties within a language or dialect continuum? Yet this must be common to the experience of many people around the world, including most of Africa.

Personally my biggest experience with this was transitioning in 1985 from Djenné, Mali, where as a Peace Corps volunteer I gained a certain competence in the Maasinankoore variety of Fulfulde, to Pita, Guinea, in the heart of the Pular-speaking Futa Jalon region. Actually it was unlike anything I've done before or since, even though I've encountered dialect differences more briefly elsewhere.

Making the transition was kind of fun - and occasionally funny. The biggest initial difference I found between Fula varieties has always been the greetings, but they are relatively simple to learn. Then there was keeping track of different verb endings, not making the initial consonant shifts in verbs, and a few other grammatical differences. Most of this was on the fly, but as I mentioned in an earlier posting, it did help me to have Sonja Fagerberg-Diallo's learning materials for both varieties of the language.

Then there were some differences in vocabulary - including some well-known (such as the first two below) and lesser known pitfalls:
  • caggal = "back (anatomy)" or "after" in Maasinankoore, but cagga = "prostitute" in Pular
  • ɓaawo = "back (anatomy)" or "after" in Pular, but ɓaawo = "female genitalia (very impolite)" in Maasinankoore
  • pati = "don't" in Maasinankoore, but pati = "grandmother" in Pular
  • kaani (pl. perfective of verb haanude) = "should" in Maasinankoore, but kaani = "ugly" in Pular
You can imagine that such differences could suddenly deflect a conversation into incomprehension or laughter.

Fortunately nothing I encountered in Futa Jalon was too extreme. As alluded to above, I spoke and listened, which is more or less how people from the region who move to a new area would bride a language or dialect gap. Except that I had a few advantages: One was that being a foreigner with any competence in the language was a bit of a novelty in Guinea at that time, so I think expectations were not high (and maybe some missteps were attributed to accent). I was also able to ask and get pointers from my Guinean co-workers in the community forestry project since they all also spoke French. And I was fortunate to have help of a local teacher, Amadou "Sernas" Bah, in going through an extensive Pular word list. (I had done something similar but more extensive in Djenné with Maasinankoore that led to the later Fulfulde Lexicon.)

The risk of meaning one thing but saying the opposite

I recall a Malian co-worker in Djenné, Boubey Touré, who came from Rharous in the Songhai area in the north of that country, but who never tried speaking his language (what Ethnologue classifies as Songhay, Koyraboro Senni) with speakers of the Djenné dialect of Songhai (a distinct variety of  Songhay, Koyra Chiini), for fear that some word he would say would would mean the opposite in local speech (as he put it). So he ended up mostly relying on Bambara in forestry extension work.

When I went to Futa Jalon, I actually encountered the kind of situation Boubey referred to, but in Fula. The accomplished (roughly past tense) negative ending for active voice verbs in Maasinankoore is pronounced -aayi (even though generally written -aali), wheras the future ending for active voice verbs in Pular is pronounced -ayi. Essentially the same sound. So coming from one background and not knowing, one could actually say a lot of things that mean almost the opposite in the other location.

The bigger lesson though is that an African extension worker like Boubey who is fluent in one language variety never had any training or materials to allow him to negotiate the dialect / language (variety) differences in his own country, while someone like me gets to go there as a Peace Corps volunteer, get all kinds of training for a second language, and then support and materials to transition to another variety of that language.

Greetings differ most markedly between dialects

I have much less experience with Manding varieties, but recall my first trip to the Bougouni area of Mali where people greeted me with "I ni se," a Bambara greeting I hadn't encountered before. It wasn't a different pronunciation of the widely used greeting, "I ni ce," and though it sounded disconcertingly close to the female response to greetings "Nse," it definitely wasn't that either. Then I realized this was the verb "se," to arrive. I ni se is a greeting on arrival. Welcome! Apparently this is common only in that region.

It is always the greetings that are the most different between varieties. One more example from Fula: In Maasinankoore one could say on parting, Alla hollu en ontuma (God show us another time), while in Pular I only ever heard a short form of that, En ontuma. Most other greetings are just different.

Thank you for your understanding

On a break from a PanAfrican Localisation workshop in Centurion (Tshwane), South Africa, Adel el Zaim, Dwayne Bailey and I took a walk over to a shopping area, and on the way out of one shop I looked back and read a sign "Dankie vir u ondersteuning." (What?) I asked Dwayne and he explained that it actually meant "Thank you for your support." English and Afrikaans are of course two separate though related languages, with some cognates, and evidently some faux amis as well. But this sort of example, even allowing for different spellings, of a concept ("under"+"standing") shifting meanings is something found between dialects as well.

Another example is from my move from Mali to Guinea: In Maasinankoore, the verb doomude (or doomugol) means simply to wait, but in Pular it has the sense of waiting around at mealtime to be invited to eat.

* Barrier or divide or gap?

Quick note on terminology. There is an advantage I think to using a "divide" or "gap" rather than "barrier" to describe the situation where lack of common language prevents or hampers communication. In effect what we're actually talking about is a "communication gap" in need of a common language "bridge" or learning some key differences between dialects to exchange ideas and information and do so accurately.

The gap/divide and bridge metaphor is I think quite powerful in portraying the problem and solution in the case of people with very different languages. In the case of dialects, the divide is not as wide or deep, and the problem is not as much inability to communicate, as running into mini-gaps such as differences in vocabulary or terms that are used differently. The knowledge need is more nuanced - figuring out what you know and don't know. So "dialect barrier" is no more apt here (I used it humorously in the title), but not sure of a better analogy.

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