The best of words, the worst of words (Wolof edition! With French bonus word!): lekk / kay and Badara (+ époustouflant)

Salaam alekum! Nanga def? Lou bess?*

I haven’t done a “best of words, worst of words” since being in Senegal, so, five days before my departure (!!!!!), i present to you the first and probably last Wolof version of the series, at least for the time being.

Tantie aka Armande chose two favorite Wolof words. Usually I force people to commit to just one above all others, but since she had so much trouble coming up with her most detested word, I cut her some slack. Her first favorite:

Lekk means “to eat. She chose this word because she likes to eat, pure and simple.

Her next choice was not so simple, at least not for non-Wolof-speaking me.

Kay means “come,” but unlike other verbs, kay has no conjugation. It’s always just kay, and whatever modifier you add to it indicates your specific meaning. Tantie likes this word because it can have so many different senses – demanding, friendly, romantic – depending on how you say it and which word(s) you follow it with.

As for her most hated word, Tantie sort of cheated. She couldn’t come up with an actual word so she chose a Wolof man’s name.

Tantie has no idea why she dislikes this name so much. One day she was watching TV with her brother when a man came onscreen with the name Badara, and she found herself saying vehemently, “I hate that name.” She assured me that it had nothing to do with any actual person.

For good measure, I asked Tantie what her favorite and least favorite French words are. She could only come up with a favorite. (Tantie may be too nice for her own good.)

The reason for époustouflant: It’s a funny word that’s fun to say.

It is indeed. And it means breathtaking, mind-boggling, staggering, or amazing.

I hope you enjoyed your brief Wolof (and even briefer French) lesson. Jerejef – thank you – for reading.

* Hello, how are you? What’s new? [Salaam alekum is Arabic; the rest if Wolof. You may see the Wolof words spelled differently in different places because Wolof’s original written script has been replaced with transliterations based on French or other (Arabic? not sure) phonetic systems.]

Advertisements

Miluju Čechy (which may or may not accurately mean, “I love Czechs”)

I wrote to the Czech Consulate in New York to ask for advice re: getting my passport reissued to Ruth Fertig instead of Ruth Fertigová. They suggested visiting the consulate here in Dakar. The website that they linked me to provides that office’s information, including “telefon,” “fax,” “e-mail,” and something called, “provozní hodiny úřadu,” which is followed by, “po – pá 8.30 – 17.00.”

My excellent powers of deduction led me to believe that these were the hours of operation, and that “po – pá” must be the shortened versions of two weekdays. The entirety of my Czech vocabulary consists of the words for pancakes, potatoes, dumplings, Czech, I love you, thank you, how are you, mom, dad, and hello, so I started plugging weekdays into Google Translate. “Monday” is “pondělí,” so that accounts for the first day. I typed in “Tuesday;” that day starts with a u. “Wednesday” starts with an s. Thursday… well, I stopped short at Thursday. What the hell is this??

My awe for my father grew tenfold at the thought that he is capable of pronouncing such a thing.

And my adoration for Czechs in general also grew tenfold when I typed in “Friday” and Google auto-suggested “Friday I’m in love.”

I can’t tell whether this is a result of Eastern Europeans’ abiding love for the Cure or their tendency to embrace Western European and American pop culture 10-20 years after the original issue date, as though the Iron Curtain still existed. The latter sounds patronizing, I know, but it’s been my observation each of the 3 or 4 times I’ve been in the Czech Republic and the one time I was in Romania. Either way, I love the Czechs.

P.S. Today is International Mother Language Day, which promotes the preservation and protection of all languages through multilingualism and multiculturalism. It’s therefore highly appropriate that I write about my father’s mother tongue today – though also highly inappropriate that I’m taking absolutely no initiative to learn it.

Yiddish wisdom about love

My mother’s grandmother spoke to her in Yiddish, and there were two expressions she used that my mother has in turn passed on to me:

Az will kommen der b’shert, es will sein ohne zwei worte.

[When the right one comes along, it will be without saying two words.]

Wenn der putz steht, der sechel legt.

[When the penis goes up, reason goes down.]

I’ve got overly romantic sensibilities, so I find the first saying ridiculously sweet even though I rationally know that subscribing to it is dangerous. If you’re waiting to be struck by lightning upon first viewing your b’shert, as it were, your prospects will be significantly reduced.

The latter turn of phrase makes me wish so much that I could have met my great-grandmother. It seems that she, like my mother, had a gift for saying highly inappropriate yet hilarious things to her progeny. I wonder what other awesome Yiddish wisdom (or Yiddish curses) she spouted that have since been lost to time.

Happy Valentine’s Day! My sincerest hope for you is that you spend today with the right one. And if s/he hasn’t come along yet, may you at the very least not be in the company of an unthinking dick.

[Painting by Marc Chagall, whose work is resplendent with both romance and Yiddishkeit.]

immature humor

My favorite faux amis yet, spotted in Ouagadougou.

In French, this sign advertises custom-made stamps. But in English, it seems to tout very, very unappealing candy.

As I wrote that last sentence I realized how weird it is that you are allowed to double your very’ies and really’s for effect in English. I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen the same in French with très or tellement. Can anyone confirm if it is ever done?? (Double question marks: not grammatically correct but I like them anyway.)

Is this the most unpronouncable word in the French language?

Huileux.

Fitting that it means “oily,” because the word is impossible to get a grip on. If you listen to the very deep-voiced man pronouncing the word on the Larousse Dictionary site I linked to, you might convince yourself that he is saying something very similar to “wheel-euse.” But when I’ve taken that seemingly ever-so-slight tongue shortcut, French people have no idea what I’m saying. Their “huil” is pronounced with about three vowel sounds paradoxically strung together in the space of one syllable. My mouth cannot begin to recreate that sound, and the few times I have finally with great effort managed to at least approximate it, it’s proven impossible to get the second syllable to follow on the first.

The most frustrating thing is that I really have thought I’ve gotten it right on several occasions when I’ve contorted my mouth into ridiculous shapes and called upon every tongue and ear muscle I have. And yet, even then I was corrected.

So, I’m just going to say “pleine d’huile” if I ever want to point out how oily something is.

[Photo: Bobby McKay]

here comes the rain

Last Thursday night it drizzled, and after five months in Senegal with nary a drop of rain, the scent of freshly-wet earth read to my nostrils as one of the loveliest smells in the world.

Today I got caught in another teeny tiny shower and realized that for the first time since arriving here, I’m going to have to start checking the weather report. The rainy season is upon us, and Mamie warns me that it will be “dégueulasse” when the water overflows the gutters and everything turns to mud.

But for now I feel positively Gene Kelly-like. And I’m excited about the prospect of using my second-favorite French word, parapluie (umbrella, topped only by pamplemousse, grapefruit), as frequently as possible.

Ahhh, frustration

3153059764_dc37c50bd5_z.jpg

I have only one memory of learning how to read, but it’s a very clear one. I was reading aloud to my kindergarten teacher and I got stuck, yet again, on a word with “ough” in it. I could not for the life of me remember how to make that sound (or rather, sounds, since the ough’s in though and through and thought are all pronounced differently). Phonics were of no use to me with such a complicated combination of letters.

I think that moment became lodged in my long-term memory because of the emotions associated with it. I remember being very aware that my teacher knew this was a problem area for me, and feeling both embarrassed and frustrated that I was having the same trouble over and over again, many times beyond what I perceived to be acceptable. I really didn’t want to disappoint her by not learning what she was teaching, and I really didn’t want to disappoint myself by being anything less than whip-smart. 

That memory was called to mind this past week as I struggled, for the millionth time, to properly pronounce euil/oeil/ueil sounds in French. They are my Achilles heel. I cannot for the life of me ever ever ever remember how to pronounce, let alone spell, words like feuille (leaf), accueil (welcome), and oeil (eye), except that there is a general sound of vomiting involved. (It is purely coincidental that I have the most trouble saying the words that I also find the most hideously guttaral.) Every single time I come across a word with one of those crazy mixtures I just say it three different ways back to back and hope that one of them is approximately correct.

My inability to put proper French pronunciation in the vault fills me with the same despair I had as a five year-old. The difference, though, is that as a 36 year-old I can remind myself that I just used the word “though” effortlessly, without a second thought (there it is again!) and have been doing so for three decades. Eventually, if I stick with it, I will do the same for French.

[Photo: Janna Lauren]

the best of words, the worst of words: foi and impossible

Asking native French speakers to tell me, in French, their favorite and least favorite words and to explain their choices is a good way for me to practice conversational French and also possibly learn some new words. Thus, the best of words, the worst of words. A couple of weeks ago, I targeted my colleague, Serge, for this delightful-to-me/bemusing-to-him exercise.

Serge is a soccer-playing, West African record-spinning, ethnic cuisine-sampling Burkinabè who also spent time growing up in Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal. I find it inspiring and awesome that nearly every day he does the rounds, visiting cubicles on two floors of our section for friendly little tête à têtes – and it was during one of these that he told me his best and worst words.

He wanted to start with his least favorite word:

Serge's least favorite word: impossible

Impossible = well, impossible. Because, “Rien est impossible. C’est une histoire d’energie. Si tu penses que tu peux faire quelque chose, tu peux le faire, mais ça demande une certaine discipline, l’obligation, courage. Donc le mot ‘impossible,’ je ne l’utilise jamais.” [Nothing is impossible. It’s about your energy. If you think that you can do something, you can do it, but it takes some discipline, commitment, courage. So I never use the word ‘impossible.’] I asked Serge if there’s ever been anything he’s wanted to do but not been able to manage, and with a confident shake of his head he replied, “No.” (I wish I could say the same.)

Serge’s favorite word is the other side of the coin:

Serge's favorite word: foi

Foi = faith. Because: “Croire en soi, peu importe la situation, tout ira bien.” [If you believe in yourself, no matter what the situation, everything will be okay.] For Serge it’s a question of both religious faith and confidence in himself, though he added, “La confiance en moi vient de Lui.” [My self-confidence comes from God.]

So, it appears that Serge and I are polar opposites: he’s an optimistic man of faith, and I’m an agnostic ball of anxiety. But we are in agreement when it comes to our love of West African music. So I will take this opportunity to publicly remind Serge that he still owes me a mix tape. 🙂