Prompt # 9 – language

More from Notes from the Canadian honey jar

June 9, 2017

When she wants to laugh really hard, like a deep belly laugh that will become painful if it goes on for more than a few seconds, she gets him (the ferenj boyfriend) to say some Amharic words. It works every time. One of the (many) perks of having a non-habesha boyfriend/lover/partner! Instant laughs, guaranteed.

She’d never laughed so hard with a new guy, or any guy actually. When dating a habesha guy, the way Amharic enters the conversation is with regards to what words/phrases she does know and doesn’t know vs. him, or the other way around. Who’s more ‘fluent’, how much time they spend communicating in Amharic, and what occasions they most speak in Amharic. There’s nothing fun about it, except for when she (for example) misuses a word or uses a word out of context…

dib (bear) was the beginning of the end for her and A? Him jumping to the assumption that she said that word in Amharic to instruct him, because she believed he ‘knew nothing’, when ironically she said it to get his confirmation that she had said the correct word for ‘bear’. And the rest is the end of their history?

Sometimes, a guy mumbles nonsense in what to him sounds the way Amharic sounds. It’s always interesting to hear them make those sounds. That’s how we come across? He’d claims that if he really wanted to, he could learn Amharic, and she says no you can’t it’s a very hard language to learn. Who doesn’t think their language is hard to learn? The idea of someone trying to consciously learn something which you never had to consciously learn would naturally strike a person as an impossible project. Sure, you can pick up words and phrases to get by, but you’ll never have it in your soul.

I remember that American wife who learned Amharic. (Came to Ethiopia as a Peace Corps volunteer, and the rest is history!) She was totally fluent. I don’t know how she did it, but she did. It takes real determination, to learn your partner’s language to the point where you are as fluent as them, and can communicate with the whole family, young or old. It’s a kind of determination to really know that person, as opposed to just accepting that that part of them will always be inaccessible to you, or you’ll only get it second hand, through summarized translation.

Idea: a mixed couple in which the habesha partner insists the other learn Amharic, or determines his/her level of seriousness by how much of an effort s/he makes to learn the language. More interesting if it’s a habesha couple, but one is first generation and the other is immigrant, and the latter expects the former to become fluent. Cause for relationship friction for sure.

Yeah, I think this is the key thing here: that constant ‘competition’, ‘one-upmanship’ between first generations and immigrants with regards to their fluency in Amharic, how that plays out in a relationship. And how refreshing it is for the ones who are always found lacking when they are in a relationship with a non-habesha, and all of a sudden they are the expert, their mistakes are undetected and, what’s more, Amharic becomes fun! A source of joy and laughter! Not because someone is laughing at you, cackling at your expense, but because someone is laughing at themselves and with you, and you’re enjoying hearing back those words and phrases as nothing more than completely foreign sounds! Hearing them for all they are, just sounds, nothing to judge your value/authenticity as a habesha person over.

(Like how you first ‘heard’ them as a baby, perhaps. Before you knew what the sounds stood for. And you were always giggling, just happy, just enjoying the sounds, associating them with the wrong things, but not caring.)

That time, driving into Toronto, we laughed so hard because he said say something and I said ‘alawkim’, just as a sampler, and he thought it sounded like ‘I like him’, which is so true, but I never would have thought of it! (Or rather, ‘heard it’.) And in a way it was so appropriate, because at the time I alawkim if I like him LOL

Yeah so among habesha, Amharic is never fun, or if it is, it’s fun being had at my expense. (speaking as a semi-fluent, or non-fluent first generation or young immigrant), but in the land of the blind (in this case: the deaf), the one-eyed woman (the half-tongued, quarter-tongued, no-tongued woman) is queen!


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