Friday, July 1, 2011

Sound bites.

Never experienced a language that can prompt heated disagreement over how to say words like sickness, health, not sick, wellness. We take for granted that there are established definitions for words, and these definitions are backed up by a dictionary. Sure, there can be some interpretation, but there's general consensus. In Igbo (the native language spoken in Anam), there's no authority on language. As a fairly small and mostly spoken (as opposed to written) language, Igbo is subject to wide variations in definition. Any question like, "How do you say 'sickness' in Igbo?" prompts at least a five minute discussion among the native speakers. My favorite part about the ordeal is them coming upon a word that works. Everyone repeats it three or four times; multiply by six speakers and you are faced with coalescing waves of a single word crashing around your ears.

Seriously, during one of the Q&A sessions today, we spent 30 minutes discussing how to say various concepts in Igbo. The most recent: how to say a village is sick. For them, the "sick" a person gets is different from the "sick" an amorphous entity gets. It makes one realize the careful balance between assigning only one concept to a word and allowing it to be applied to similar circumstances. A perfect example is the word "fertility." In Igbo, they use separate words to describe the fertility of land and the fertility of a woman. (Incidentally, this is in part because a woman's fertility in Igbo carries a literal sense of being gifted from God, namely with a child.)

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