The Many M’s of Malagasy

One of the main parts of training for any Peace Corps Volunteer is language. For Madagascar that mean starting out with learning Malagasy official and then possibly switching to one of the dialects. For me this meant switching from Malagasy official to one dialect to another and having neither of them exactly right because my site is an odd melting pot of a few dialects and sub dialects. It’s a good thing I have two years to figure it out.

My favorite quirk about Malagasy is that almost every verb starts with M. Think about that for a minute, think about very verb you know, or even just the ones in this blog post and try to imagine they all start with the same letter. It gets to be a bit confusing. I’m not entirely convinced that my name isn’t actually a verb in some dialect and I just haven’t learned it yet. Once you start to have a handle on all the M’s you switch to dialect and relearn all of those verbs, which are different M words. I currently know three different words for things like banana, cat, and close.

Almost very noun in Malagasy starts with F, which is useful for identify parts of speech, but as I won’t have to diagram many sentence while here, it is generally more confusing than helpful. The Malagasy alphabet doesn’t include the letter C. You know that colonialism is strong when internationally recognized name for your country contains a letter not even found in your alphabet. In case you’re wondering the Malagasy spelling of Madagascar is Madagasikara.

While it sounds difficult and it is, the language trainers are some of the smartest people I have met. They generally speak English, French, Malagasy Official, and one or more dialects. They patiently go over the same words that we’ve discussed the day before and have failed to retain. We joke and laugh and often get off topic discussing important topics like how you say booger in dialect.(I now know three words for booger so I am clearly prepared.)

Our class in particular often gets off topic because we will accidentally say a word wrong and the pronunciation we use turns out to mean something wildly inappropriate. We then have to go through the process of convincing our teacher to tell us what it means and then we generally laugh for the rest of class. (This has happened often enough that there’s a set of words that we refuse to say for fear we will say them wrong.) We have endearing nicknames for our teacher such as little monster (kaka hely), cute baby (borta borta), and liar (mivandy) depending on how we are feeling that day.

Most current volunteers say that it takes about a year before they finally feel fully comfortable with the language so we shall see what the next months bring.

“Words, when spoken out loud for the sake of performance, are music. They have rhythm and pitch and timbre and volume. These are the properties of music, and music has the ability to find us and move us, and lift us up in ways that literal meanings can’t. Do you see?” – The West Wing


Playing volleyball against the PC staff

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