Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Blah, blah, blah"

What a great luxury it is to play in the world of the mind! I've spent the entire morning listening to music, deciding which of so many delicious selections to share today. While doing that I've had fun ranging mentally through all the stories there are to tell, and stories beget more stories...what better way to spend one's time? There must be something to be said for ambition and Joni Mitchell's "struggle for higher achievement," but I was never bitten by that bug. Call me un-American. (Hmm....like Joni!)

In Ghana, I lived among the Ashanti, the dominant people in the southern tier of the country. Before the British mounted a serious attack on them (and the Brits were given long, brutal fights in a series of wars that lasted most of the 19th century), the Ashanti were on their way to colonizing the entire region surrounding their inland capital, Kumasi, all the way down to the coast. Had events been allowed to unfold without external interference, today we would most likely have a kingdom in West Africa called Ashantiland, and it would be a force to be reckoned with.

Ashanti culture dominates that part of West Africa, beyond national borders. Their language is Twi (pronounced "chwee") and virtually everyone in the country speaks it to one degree or another, even if managing only a few words. I never learned to speak it well. As much as I had, up to then, prided myself on a facility with languages, I found the mental processes behind the use of Twi truly foreign. You could learn vocabulary and proudly string a sentence together, only to be told, "Oh no, we say it this way." The proper way used words you'd never heard before and was usually based on parable. (Another reason I had trouble learning the language is that the Ashanti view their language, properly, as a product of the African motherland. No matter how many Europeans come through, live among them and try to learn the language, to hear those sounds emanating from thin, pink lips attached to a face any shade lighter than mocha just floors them. All they can do is laugh uproariously. That reaction doesn't do much to inspire confidence.)

The Ashanti govern their lives by adages and sayings, short-hand versions of which dot conversation and are plastered everywhere, especially on the local public conveyances. My favorite was a flatbed truck with "Remember your six feet" painted with great flourish on a wooden marquee attached above the windshield. It's a reminder of mortality, that great equalizer. Rich and poor alike have their own spot reserved for them, six feet underground. Another very telling adage goes,"I can sell my grandmother to get ahead and buy her back as a sign of my success." They are hard-headed realists when it comes to practical matters. Dorothy Adoo, an ambitious and very funny woman who was a teaching colleague at my school, reacted with disdain when I asked her once if her boyfriend gave her flowers. "What do I want with flowers?" she asked. "I can't eat flowers!"

Twi doesn't recognize the difference between the sounds that "r" and "l" make. Like the Japanese, who gave us "Jerro" and "photoglaph," the Ashanti have to learn to differentiate between the two if they learn a European language. In Twi, anything goes. The command for "come" is "bra." It's usually accompanied by a gesture with the arm extended horizontally in front, the fingers making a quick, repeated grabbing motion. A mother telling a wayward child to come back within her sight says, "Bra bra bra," with her fingers clutching at each repetition. But half the time it comes out "Blah, blah, blah," and then it's your turn to laugh at their use of language. "Is this a foreign language or what?" you think to yourself. "It's all just, 'blah, blah, blah' to me!"


Kat said...

Ghanaians don't have the th sound which is why slave language is often written as dese and dose. I used to have my students repeat a tongue twister with all th sounds. They, in turn, would teach me words from their languages and laugh as I struggled to say them. I learned Hausa in the Peace Corps. It is dependent upon the sound of the verb for its tense. The Ghanaians never knew whether I was coming or going. I did well with language and during training used to look for the Zongo in every village, the area where Northerners lived. I'd go each night and sit for a language lesson. It was so much fun to learn with all these Ghanaians sitting around, smiling and nodding their heads when I got it right.

Ralph said...

Kat, that's right, I forgot about the "th" sound. What Twi I did speak was the "baby Twi" spoken by non-native speakers I'd run into. My landlord was a Ga, and my housemate's houseboy was Dagbani. We could speak Twi together and not care about mistakes, nor worry about people laughing in our faces. I wish I could call the Ashanti amusement at my language attempts "gentle." They are proud and brash people though, and no matter what they may have intended, it came off as mocking.

michele said...

For me the language fun was exploring the differences between the English English my students spoke and the American English I spoke. The first few days of classes, hands kept shooting into the air asking me to slow down and explain American 'slang' to them. Usually, they were talking about differences in pronunciation. They giggled every time I said 'water' until I started pronouncing it as they did with more emphasis on the 't'. I adapted my way of speaking almost unconsciously. When I got back to the States two years later, people asked why I was speaking so slowly. One of many valuable Peace Corps lessons in cross-cultural communication.

Ralph said...

Michele, ah yes! Special English! The BBC had their "Special English" broadcast and we all evolved our own Special English way to talk. I remember a wisecrack from the day, that the BBC wouldn't have to do anything to a Nixon speech to broadcast it because he already spoke in Special English. I made a similar crack about the current president to Steve and Steve had no idea what I was talking about.

Remember how much fun it became just to talk when you got around other Americans? You marveled at your own fluency. Just speaking became a sensual experience/

Kat said...

Ralph and Michele,
I found that when I was out with Peace Corps volunteers and Ghanaian friends I alternated between quick American English and slow, pronounce every T Ghanaian English in the same conversation. On the plane home, I asked for waTa,and the stewardess had no idea what I was talking about.

I loved when my students translated literally from their own language to English. They were never returning: they go come. When I wasn't home, my student explained she had gone to my house and met my absence. Ghanaian English was wonderful.

Ralph said...

Love those stories! The Ghanaian accent also made for some misunderstandings. I boy came to me in class once and whispered very discreetly, "Please, sir, I want to ruin it." I looked at him quizzically and tried to imagine what he was trying to say. "I need to ruin it," he said again with some urgency. Through pantomime I finally figured out he had to urinate. He got out of the class before any accidents happened.