Thursday, August 21, 2008

Speaking Tamazight (Berber)

Speaking Tamazight (Berber)

I’m going to try and explain a feeling that is easy to understand if you’ve felt it, but perhaps difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t.
When I’m speaking a foreign language, there is a different feeling to it than speaking your native tongue. I noticed it with French and Spanish too, but the feeling is strongest with Tamazight. In a foreign tongue, the words that pass between people have an explicit meaning, something that you can look up in a dictionary. But they lack any kind of feeling or implicit meaning behind them. (There is a better term other than implicit and explicit, but I cannot recall it now). So when I’m talking to people, we’re communicating the thoughts that are in our heads be exchanging information, but it’s only an exchange of explicit information. It sort of feels as though I’m breaking a code as I listen.
One way to explain the feeling is to think about how you feel when you hear a swear word. For most of us, hearing a dirty word provokes a kind of emotional reaction. I think that all words provoke some sort of emotional reaction, just not as strong as those associated with swear words. But when I’m speaking in a foreign language, there is no emotional reaction to any word. As I said, it’s hard to explain – the best I can do is to say that there is no feeling or implicit meaning to the words of a foreign language.
I have been noticing this phenomenon a lot recently as I spoke with people here in my town. Then, last week, I read an article in The New Yorker that helped me think about it in a different way. The article was about the moments of insight that people have when they solve a problem and how the human mind comes to that insight. In short, the article concluded that moments of insight often come when people aren’t concentrating specifically on the problem; when they let their brains relax just a little bit.
The article also discussed the differences between right and left brain thought. If I understood the article, the right brain was critical to reaching these moments of insight because it uses associative reasoning. If people can relax their brains, the right hemisphere can perhaps help to make the appropriate connections to allow for insight.
Now to synthesize my thoughts about speaking in Tamazight and what I got from the article. In language, the left brain is responsible for the recalling the explicit meanings behind words, while the right brain, as mentioned above, works on associative, implicit connections. When I (or any other native English speaker), speak English, both hemispheres are involved in analyzing the language. The left hemisphere gives me the “dictionary definition” of the words, while the right hemisphere gives me the implicit meaning of the words, the feeling of the words. However, when I speak and listen to Tamazight, I have not formed any (or at least not many) implicit meanings for words. I mostly have just the translation of the word stored in my brain. So I’m only listening with my left brain. In the article, the author discussed people who’s right hemispheres had been physically damaged and their difficulties with language. They could understand language, but had no implicit connections. The article said that they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
And that statement, that they couldn’t see the forest for the trees, is how I feel when I speak Tamazight. (When I understand, which isn’t all the time) I comprehend the specific information that is being transferred to me, but my right brain has no implicit associations to form. No greater picture, no forest. There is no emotional reaction, just a left brain understanding of the words.
I think it’s limiting – I’m missing out on some of what’s being communicated. Presumably, as I get more and more used to the language, my brain will form more implicit associations for the words and perhaps my right brain will kick in a little bit.

Reals vs Dirhams
This is just a short little observation, but I think it’s interesting. The official currency of Morocco is the dirham. Right now one dollar buys you about 7.4 dirhams. In Tounfite, my market town, 5 dirhams buys you a soda, 18 buys you some chicken and fries at a cafe. The used refrigerator that I bought cost 1,200 dirhams. My rent on my teeny house is 250 dirhams per month. A 45 minute transport ride to my town costs 10 dirhams. A kilo of chicken costs 30 dirhams. A kilo of tomatoes costs 3 dirhams, depending on the season.
However, no one here talks about the costs of things in dirhams. All the currency is denominated in dirhams, but people only speak of the cost in terms of reals. One dirham is twenty reals. So if I have a twenty dirham note and three five dirham coins in my pocket and a price is quoted for me at 560 reals, I have to quickly divide by twenty (28 dirhams) to know how much change to give.
The real is a relic of Morocco’s pre-independence days. If the math is tough for you, a vendor will do the real-dirham conversion upon request. But, people love it if you can think in terms of reals and not use dirhams. People talk in dirhams only in the bigger cities. I think it’s amazing that people look at a bill that says 50 dirhams on it, but they see 1,000 reals. Talk about implicit associations.

It seems like I’m always saying I will be moving into my house soon, but this time it’s true (hopefully). Saturday is the date. It will come as a relief. I’m planning to have a little house warming get together with four of the nearby volunteers.
Ramadan is fast approaching (no pun intended) and I’m planning to fast. I think it starts the night of September 2nd. For the uninitiated, observant Muslims do not eat, drink, smoke, have sex, or speak bad words from sun up to sun down for the entire month of Ramadan. The Islamic calendar is lunar, so thankfully it’s only a 28 day month. Also, the fact that the calendar is lunar means that Ramadan comes earlier every year. I’ll be sure to do a post just on Ramadan and the experience of fasting.
Other than that, it’s business as usual here. Hope all is well in the states.


Jillian said...

Nice post! Thank goodness I avoided that real business (I lived in Meknes, where they speak in dirhams). Another funny darija linguistic thing is "wahed, juj, tlata" - literally "one, a pair, three" - my Gulf friends never cease to make fun of this.

Alex said...

Hey, buddy. First of all, I miss you like I would a meat omelet in a vegetarian restaurant. Secondly, I enjoyed your comments on learning a new language. The most uncanny aspect of speaking a relatively unfamiliar language and living among its speakers for me, while in France, was coming to the realization that this language, I previously encountered in books and with relatives, was an actual language, spoken everyday. The words I learned, people knew and used with ease. After a while, it expectedly became more natural, but those first couple of months I struggled, not only to communicate, but with my condition as an outsider. I was constantly aware of the infinitesimal parts that comprise basic communication. Inflection and gesture become one's best friends in deciphering. I think your use of the binary, implicit and explicit, speaks well to this experience. It's hard enough mastering the explicit, and while doing so, one cannot help but feel that the implicit, so important to meaning, frustratingly remains a mystery.

Good luck!

Christopher said...

Duncan, when's the next time you come to the states? I miss chillin' with you man. Hopefully things are going well for you out there.