Saturday, November 17, 2007

What do you mean please?

I started taking Wolof classes a few weeks ago. It's kind of pointless now since I'm leaving so soon, but it had just gotten to the point that it was embarrassing and I coudn't converse fluently with some of my best friends. I should have done it a long time ago, but better late than never, as they say.

Wolof is the dominant language in Senegal. Even if they are from a different ethnic background(Puulaar, Sereer, Jola, etc), virtually all Senegalese speak Wolof. As do all the Gambians, Guineans, Ivorians ets, who come to Senegal to work. While in Dakar, most everyone speaks French, in the villages there are some people who know nothing but Wolof.

Anyways, what's interesting about the Wolof classes is what is demonstrates about Senegalese culture. Here are some examples:

A French girl in the class (most of the foreigners here are French) asked how you say 'please' in Wolof. The teacher said there is no such word. Why?

When you say please, or 's'il te plait' in French (the direct translation is: if it pleases you), you imply that the person you are asking has the option to refuse. When in fact, in Senegal, if you ask someone to do something, they are obliged to do it. I always used to yell at my 'grand frere' Kalz during Ramadan, because when we were all hungry and breaking fast, he would ask me to stop preparing my own meal in order to prepare his, or to bring him water before I've even had a bite to eat - without even saying please! I always felt the urge to tell him to get it himself, but for him it was perfectly normal to ask me to do it and no please or thank you necessary. But now I understand why.

There are actually many arabic-based words in Wolof. All the days of the week for example: Altine is Monday (from Al-Itneen), Talaata is Tuesday (Al-Talaat), etc. That's because when Islam arived, Arabic words replaced the Wolof ones. French is having the same impact now as some words have no real Wolof version, but some amendment of a French word. Watch is montar (montre in French), fan is wantilaateer (ventilateur), etc.

Wolof names are also reflective of casts. Certain last names are part of the "entertainer" cast I talked about in an earlier post: les grillots - dancers, singers, drummers, storytellers. The name "Thiam" (the name of the family I live with) is supposed to belong to the bijoutieux (jewellers). Carpenters are a cast, tailors another, etc. The nobles are the non-casted. But the cast system is falling apart, and as such, so are the assciations. People's names and professions no longer correspond to their casts, and people are intermarrying between casts (formerly it was dishonorable for a noble to marry a casted person, or even open a hair salon. Because the nobles weren't supposed to work).The Thiams with whom I live with are nobles, not jewellers. I imagine in half a century, Senegalese will not know casts ever existed.

My last point on Wolof classes: It is incredible the amount of time we spent learning greetings. And here, learning greetings means learning how to say "How are your goats doing?" ... That's because greetings are about 10 minutes long and include everyone and everything. Salamu Alaikum. Nangadef? Ana ma wa kerr ga? Naka affairee. Namoonala. 'Hello? How are you? How is the family? How is business? It's been so long since I've seen you.' Before leaving of course, you must ask the person to greet their family for you, wish them off in peace, etc. It sounds very nice indeed and is heart warming that they care so much about personal relationships. But it becomes a little difficult when you're in a rush and you have to spend 10 minutes greeting each of the three regulars you pass around the corner from your house. If you say hello quickly and keep going, you're being rude.

Ok, until next time. Ba benenn yoon!

1 comment:

Emily said...

Hahaha! How are _your_ goats doing!