Language

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”

It’s amazing the way language shapes us. The way in which we explain the world to ourselves and others is inextricably intertwined with the language that we use.

There’s no question that learning a new language has been the hardest part of my service so far. There’s good days and there’s bad days. But it also strikes me that learning Pulaar, which will be virtually useless once I leave Senegal, and which I’m doing solely for the purpose of communicating with the people around me, is the most important part of my integration into my community. I’m not just learning how to speak with people, but I’m also beginning to understand how the world is explained through Pulaar.

There are some verbs in Pulaar that take a sentence to explain in English. One of my favorites is domde, which means to arrive at someone’s house around mealtime with the intention of getting invited to eat. Another one is noosde, which means to be enjoying yourself in a way that you are eating your money. Both of these are important to know as a PCV. Domde-ing is an art I am perfecting here in Senegal, and “ano noosa?” (are you noos-ing?) is a common greeting that is thrown at us as people think (know) we have money.

There are other subtler elements of the language that shed light on the realities of life here. Uncertainty is an underlying theme. In Pulaar, there is no way to say “when,” only “if.” So if you’re talking about something in the future, it is always an “if” statement. I can’t say, for example, “when I go home to America,” I can only say “if I go home to America.” It’s a scary sentence structure, as I like to think there’s no question that I will go home, but Pulaar reminds us that truly nothing is certain.

There’s also a caveat that is tacked on to almost every assertion about the future: “inshallah” or “si allah jabi,” both meaning, God willing. Whether you’re talking about something like a trip you have planned, or even something as seemingly small as telling your family you’ll see them in the morning, you can be sure that “inshallah” will be added on at the end. If you don’t add it on yourself, someone else will.

These are humbling reminders that even our best laid plans can go awry and none of us can know what the future holds. Whether in Pulaar or English, anything can happen.

And, on a less profound note, the way of the language provides a really good way to get out of doing something you don’t want to do. Like when I get a marriage proposal from someone I’ve never met on the street, I can say, “I’ll marry you tomorrow, inshallah.”

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