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January 14, 2008

The Language (and Other Things)

On our third morning, I was late to meet Tim on the main floor of his hotel (not enough room for everyone, so I was staying at a—nice—hotel next door) because I got stuck in an Amharic lesson with the receptionist downstairs, who spent 10 minutes writing out greetings and numbers for me in the back of my journal. If only Amharic is said how it’s written—dehina aderic, for example, sounds like deninaderc—and if only there was ONE way to say good morning instead of three (one to be said to a man, one to a woman, and one for the plural). What’s more, Amharic has its own alphabet, which is unique to this area and derives from the ancient language of Ge’ez and, just to make things particularly complicated, has a different character for each consonant-vowel combination, so where we have one letter for ‘k’ and one for each of the vowels and can combine them as we like, they have a character for the sound ‘ka’ and one for ‘ke’ and one for ‘ki’ etc. So their alphabet can be written up in a chart. Plus, they have some sounds that we don’t, which of course gives Amharic speakers grounds to make fun of me. Such as my friend Feleke who claims I mispronounce his name every time I say it. It’s not my fault, I told him, that his parents gave him such a difficult name.

[Denver Street—that’s right. And, below, it’s Amharic equivalent, which is why I’m putting this photo here. This sign is actually from Axum, a town in the far, far north of Ethiopia that I visited for my own enrichment at the end of the trip. I think there’s some sister city thing going on, which is kind of funny to me because I don’t really see much in common between Axum and Denver. Certainly not the size—Axum is tiny tiny.] [And actually, when my friend Becky and I saw this, we said: What, this street has a name?]

Afari, on the other hand, is actually easier for me. As far as I know, one greeting fits all—rather than having to adjust for man vs. woman vs. group—and there are fewer weird sounds. And by weird I of course mean *different*. There are, however, still a few, and the Amharic speakers have trouble with them too. The Afari language can be quite guttural. There’s an ‘a’ sound that’s gravely and in the back of the throat and just sounds painful. The language seems to match the people, who match the place: Raw, rugged. The guttural ‘a’ goes with the way they spit to the side in the middle of a conversation, men and women and kids, and the way they fully insert the tip of a finger into a nostril to get something that just doesn’t belong up there out. I mean, it makes sense. Why keep something around that you just don’t want. And as far as boogers go—in a dusty desert like Afar you get some pretty good ones.

Posted by beth at January 14, 2008 8:46 PM

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