When I lived in Senegal two years ago, my biggest goal was to become conversational in French. Though I wanted to be able to speak Wolof, the first language of most Dakarois, I knew I couldn’t handle learning two languages at once.
By the time I came back here for work, I had pretty much doubled my French speaking capacity, thanks to nine months in Paris, and I felt it was high time to learn basic Wolof.
It is the first new language I’ve attempted since I took a Spanish class during my last semester of college. I had forgotten how frustrating and deeply humbling starting from scratch is. Unlike French and Spanish, Wolof shares absolutely nothing with English, a Germanic language that has borrowed thousands of words from the Latin lexicon. Because I’ve been hearing Hebrew my whole life, which also has nothing in common with English, I hoped I’d have the mental flexibility to bend to a new language family. It turns out my brain is pretty brittle.
I took ten hours of Wolof over the course of two weeks in February and during every session I would sigh, grimace, and put my head on the table more than an overtired toddler. The language is both easy, in that it makes total sense much of the time, but also incredibly hard, in that it’s an entirely different system than what I’m used to. Verbs are not conjugated, for example – at least not in the sense that I’m used to. Personal pronouns are conjugated instead (I think this might be called a declension?). And instead of categorizing verbs as variations on past, present, or future, they seem to be categorized as complete or incomplete. The same conjugation can indicate present tense for a stative verb like “to understand” or “to be called” and past tense for an action verb like “to sit” or “to go.” It’s a brain-twister.
I just did a little Googling and am now convinced Wolof is actually not easy at all. Just try making sense of this explanation:
Aspect and focus, more than tense, are central in the verbal system which is able to express if an action has been completed or is still going on, or if it takes place regularly, and whether the emphasis falls on the subject, verb or object of the sentence. The verb complex consists of an invariable stem plus an inflectional element that encodes person and number, and a particle that indicates tense-aspect-mood (TAM) or focus (subject, object, and verbal). The inflectional element and the TAM or focus particles may be preposed or postposed to the verbal lexeme. Besides, there are about thirty verbal extensions or derivational affixes that encode reciprocal, applicative, causative, locative, and other meanings. Verbs can be converted into nouns by reduplication, suffixation and consonant mutation.
Good thing I didn’t read that before starting Wolof, or I may have decided to quit while I was ahead.
Also a brain-twister, though I am sure English is just as crazy if you don’t hear it from birth: there are two or more ways to say seemingly everything. You can say “I am going to Dakar,” for example, either as “conjugated pronoun + infinitive verb + object” i.e. Mangi dem Dakar, or as “object + conjugated pronoun + infinitive verb,” i.e. Dakar laay dem. The latter is meant to place emphasis on the object rather than the subject of the sentence, much as in English we might place the stress on either the object or the subject to emphasize one or the other without changing word order.
Another complication: there is no real “to be” verb… but then again there is. Please don’t ask me to explain because I can’t.
And the numbers… At first I thought they were even more insane than the French ones, but then I reconsidered. In fact, the Wolof numeral system echoes the Roman numeral system in that it is based on both fives and tens, and you put one through five and ten together in different ways to get all your other numbers. Other than that oddity and the fact that they call 30 “fan weer,” which means “day month,” it’s all very consistent. One through five have their own words, six is five-one, seven is five-two, eight is five-three, nine is five-four, ten has its own word, eleven is ten-and-one, twelve is ten-and-two, thirteen is ten-and-three, fourteen is ten-and-four, fifteen is ten-and-five, sixteen is ten-and-five-one, seventeen is ten-and-five-two, eighteen is ten-and-five-three, nineteen is ten-and-five-four, twenty is two-ten, etc.
But then we come to the money counting system and all the record scratches in the world are not enough to communicate the craziness that comes next. I don’t even know how to explain it except to say that everything is divided by five, based on the old 5 franc pieces (known as dërëm) that used to be the main form of currency. These days, the CFA has replaced the franc, and 5 CFA coins are worth a penny, yet they are still referred to as dërëm. This means that if you want to use the Wolof counting system to pay $20 for something – around 12,000 CFA – I think (but tbh am not sure) that you have to divide it into two 5,000 CFA bills and then divide the remainder by 5, and call it ñaar juni dërëm ak ñaar ñaar teemeeri dërëm (two one-thousand-dërëm and two two-hundred-dërëm). For reals. If you don’t believe me, this site translates 3,400 CFA as such:
juroom benni teemeer ak juróom ñett fukk (680 = 5 + 1 x 100 + 5 + 3 x 10)
I asked my teacher if Senegal has a lot of mathematicians, because God knows if they are doing these feats of multiplication and division in their head from the time they’re young, calculus should be no problem.
As for me, I just shook my head at my teacher and said, “Déedéet,” which means “no.”
Not only will I never get the math of Wolof, but it’s unlikely I will ever get the spelling. First of all, while there is now apparently a standard orthography, it has not been universally adopted, and so what my textbook spells ak (“and”), my teacher spells ag. My textbook says mangi (“I am,” more or less) but my teacher writes mangy. I’m a very visual learner, so the multiple spellings pose a real threat not only to my ability to write but also to my ability to absorb and retain anything I learn.
Then there’s the problem of pronunciation. I’m sure I’ll improve over time, but right now I can’t pronounce certain commonly used sounds to save my life: mb as in Mbour (a town), ng as in nga and ngeen (you singular and you plural, respectively), and nd as in Youssou Ndour.
Despite all of this, I feel hopeful that I’ll eventually be able to communicate if I keep practicing what I learned. At the moment, in real life (as opposed to in the classroom) I’m only picking up words and phrases here and there, but every time I do it delights me. Learning a language is like unlocking the door to an exciting world I’ve been able to see through the keyhole but never visit. With every little thing I understand, I feel the key turn ever so slightly further in the lock, and it convinces me to ignore all the frustration and illogic and push on. So I’ll conclude by saying:
Dégg naa Wolof tuuti rekk, waayé leegi, mangi jang lool, ak am jamm…
…which means, “I only speak a little Wolof, but I study a lot, and I have peace.” Asking if people are at peace and wishing them peace is an important part of Wolof salutations, so I figured I’d throw it in.
Tantie looked over my sentence and laughed, “Un peu bizarre, mais beau.” That pronouncement could apply to my life in general, I think.