Monday, March 4, 2013

One Cool Thing Humans Have Invented Is Language

Note: this post was written a couple of weeks ago.
I just got back from a grueling, horrendously full-of-failure but nevertheless emboldening and enlightening day in Ouagadougou. I spent the better part of 12 hours trying to accomplish a simple errand, and returned home empty-handed, exhausted, and covered in la poussiere.

La poussiere is a french word that I learned here, it was not a part of my life before arriving. Translated into English, it's "dust" but when I hear it or use it, I don't translate it into our english word dust, in my head. And I wouldn't confuse it with what we may call dust in the states. It's hot, dry earth in flight. On windy days, it covers everything, your breakfast, the inside of your throat, your clothes hanging out to dry.  It's also wonderfully cool and dry against sweaty feet, and gives one a feeling of great accomplishment in the shower to see it leave one's skin. It truly has its own identity and temperament, and lives independently in my head separate from any other concept.

An unforeseen boon from today's fruitless trip (besides getting to see a man literally climb all over everybody on a crowded bus while selling toothpaste…twice, the same man on two different buses. What is the demand for toothpaste on commuter buses.) is that I managed to pick up a French-Mooré lexicon. It's less dictionary and more language workbook. (Note: when I wrote that, I had only looked at the first two pages. The rest of the pages are, well, exactly like a dictionary.)

One thing that makes being human really pretty neat is language. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's the thing that being human is all about. And the coolest thing we as a species have ever invented.  Feel free to disagree with me in the comments section below, but your own words will be working against you, proving you wrong.  And while it's true that scientists continue to find we're not the only one's who had this bright idea (ex: octopi and other cephalopods, who communicate by changing colors and folding and unfolding their bodies, have been found to have both syntax and grammar in their communications) it is human language that continues to fascinate me each day. I have obvious biases. 

Nasaara, or white person, is the first word I learned in Mooré. I also learned that it's a totally normal greeting shouted to Nasaaras walking on sidewalks by adults and children alike. (But mostly little ones)
I've also been reading (and re-reading, and crying over) the way Hemingway crafted english that feels and reads like Spanish. It breathes a life into his characters and a fresh but gritty realness into the setting
Baarka means thank you, but it also means blessing.
So when you thank someone, you just say blessing.
In Mooré, the word for child, biiga, is the same as the word for grain or seed. I believe that the way a language is structured gives clues it gives us about the cultural values and understandings of the people who have crafted it over generations. This is what fascinated me as a student learning french- driving me to try and understand where a word or phrase came from, it's latin root, it's context in the fabric of the culture. This understanding, when I managed to obtain it, was truly the driving force behind my love affair with the language. This love affair ended long long ago, but unlike most, it could probably be reignited with a little focus.
For you non-francophones, the Mooré word for "to be" is bè. Cool right?
I am far, far, far from understanding how the language Mooré grew and lives and breathes. I can barely (but proudly) count to ten. But I'm digging the insight it can give me about a place and how the people there relate to it. 
The same word means to flatter, to trick or play a joke on, and to console a crying child. Think about that. 
So as I travel through life and time, I'll probably continue to geek out over the most powerful and beautiful tool we've ever invented. And the fact that we invented it everywhere…and everywhere, it's the same only different. 

Just like we are. 


  1. I told you the day we were in the restaurant that i do not think that language is an invention... and i (still) remember you were out of words to explain what you were meaning.

  2. I get it now, Seydou. It hadn't occurred to me to think of language as an innate characteristic of what it means to be human. Thanks for the link you sent me.... If anyone out there reads french you can check it out

    I think that I still do consider language a human invention. I think that one day, our ancestors had the idea to establish commonly understood specific meanings for specific noises.... it radically changed our everyday lives and ability to survive and create.

    There's a line in that article that says "Culture distinguishes man from the rest of nature." When I read that I realized how telling this question is: I don't think we should distinguish man from the rest of nature, but I do see that that's a generally held belief. I think it's created plenty problems for us.

    Now that I think about it a little more, I'm realizing this question is really deep and can tell us a lot about the way that people view the world and human's place in it. Thanks for bringing it up!