One of my new interests and hobbies has been learning the local dialect of Changana, which is a language in the Bantu family and is related to Zulu, Ronga, Machope, Tsonga and a few other obscure dialects. This language group generally covers the north eastern corner of South Africa, southern Mozambique, including the capital of Maputo, and up into Zimbabwe. When the European colonizers divided up Africa they had no regards for cultural or linguistic ties, but made arbitrary lines on the map; hence the wide spread of these languages across borders. It is also interesting to encounter words that sound awfully similar to their English equivalents. A watch in Changana is watchy,a book is booky, a teacher is teacha, to read is the same as the Portuguese verb, ler. I think this is evidence that throughout the evolution of the language and hence the culture, these words and ideas were not originally developed here, but instead were imported from foreign exposure.
I would never say that I am fluent in Changana, but I have learned enough to have basic conversations, greet people, do all of my market business, talk scatology and very importantly, insult people. Do not underestimate the importance of insulting people, it has saved me many times from being ripped off. In passing people I can understand the gist of peoples conversations, but certainly not in its entirety. I have discovered how incredibly valuable and entertaining it is to understand a language that nobody expects you to understand. My teachers are the women who sell vegetables in the market, and other friends in the community. Usually I spend thirty minutes per day in the market just chatting with the women, and when I come across a word I don’t know, or something I want to say, but don’t know how, I ask them and write it down in a notebook. They are used to this little routine by now, but found it incredibly funny at first.
Being a bantu language, Changana is totally different than any language spoken in the west. There are an assortment of interesting sounds that don’t exist in my previous linguistic repertoire such as grunting, whistling between the teeth and sounds that are normally reserved for throat clearing, hissing and clearing out boogers. Except these sounds are mixed into the middle of words, which makes for some funny sounding conversations to the untrained ears. Every language in the world has its own characteristic patterns of sounds, pitches, textures, and rhythms that our lips, tongues, teeth and breath have learned how to make. In order to learn Changana I literally had to retrain my mouth to make sounds that previously I did not have the capacity to do. When writing down words in my notebook I get right up in the face of the speaker and watch how their mouth moves when they make the word. My women teachers like this as well, and have learned to face me and speak slowly as they repeat new words. They probably think I am quite dumb, but when it comes to Changana I am but a child learning for the first time. Imagine a mother standing in front of a baby saying ma – ma, ma – ma very slowly. Except now it’s a little more complicated “swa-nan-zia, swa–nan–zia”.
There are three large factors that have contributed to my learning Changana with relative ease, and none of them are because I am amazing at learning languages. Languages are like math problems, once you figure out the pattern and the formula, it’s a simple task of applying the rules and memorizing vocabulary. The first factor is that grammatically speaking, Changana is a very simple language. There are three verb tenses; past present and future and the verb stems don’t conjugate like they do in Portuguese or English. I will give a small example to demonstrate. Here is the verb to like. Ku Randza.
Mena Ni randza – I like
Wena U randza – you like
Yena A randza – he/she likes
Hena Hi randza – we like
Vona Va randza – they like
And in order to make the sentence negative you simply add a in front.
So I don’t like becomes:
A ni randza.
For the past tense you simply add ili to each verb stem :
Mena Ni randzili – I liked
Wena U randzili – you liked ………etc
For the future tense you add in front – ta – :
Mena ni ta randza – I will like
Wena u ta randza – you will like …. Etc
So, the general structure of Changana is very simple, although there are certain irregulars and special cases, like any language.
The second factor is that the general level of conversation that people have in Changana is very simple. In casual conversation most people are not delving into abstract philosophy or engaging in work that requires a highly specialized vocabulary. The basic level of conversation I hear around town is mostly related to daily chores, eating, cooking, selling or buying things, relationships and family. Lucky for me, James Joyce did not speak Changana, hence the vocabulary is quite simple and repetitive. Also there are many verbs that have double meaning, which simplifies things even more. For example the verb to want and to need are the same.
The third contributing factor is the fact that I am immersed in Changana. In the larger cities in Mozambique, Portuguese is the primary language heard in the streets, but in the villages and smaller communities such as Manjacaze its usually only dialect that is spoken. So just by hearing a thousand times the same greetings, chitchat and market gossip, my brain has just passively absorbed the language like a sponge. It has been quite fun going from hearing strange mouth noises to actually understanding the meaning associated with those funky noises. This is a double edged sword however as not understanding anything usually made for the perception of quiet and solitude, even amongst bustling markets and crowded taxis. However now I hear words and meaning, my brain latches on, and markets become noisy and distracting places. Understanding is not a conscious choice, it either happens or it doesn’t, and once you cross that barrier into understanding you cannot easily go back.
The real fun in speaking Changana however is playing around with people. As I said before, everybody assumes I don’t speak and so they will openly gossip about me, thinking I don’t understand a word they are saying. My strategy for maximizing the fun is to let them speak, gossip, discuss my appearance, the fact that I am not married or whatever it is they are talking about, and then confront them, in Changana. One time in a taxi the women were talking about how they saw me riding my bike way outside of town, and that they thought my cycling clothing looked funny. I turned around and told them that I love riding my bike and that I thought their cloth headwraps looked strange. The looks on their faces were absolutely priceless and they began apologizing profusely for talking about me.
Oftentimes people will refer to me by the term “mulungo” which literally means white man, and is borderline offensive, sort of like the South American gringo equivalent. Usually in groups of men, there is always one obnoxious idiot that wants to show off in front of his friends and make some derogatory comment about me as I pass, always using this term mulungo. He will usually ask me, “hey white man, where are you going?” however using the diminutive form of the word in order to be insulting. I like to respond in Changana, “Thank you for asking black man, I am going to your house to visit your wife, play with your kids and eat all your food”. I haven’t been beat up yet, and the obnoxious men are rightly put in their place.
The best is speaking Changana in Maputo, as white people are fairly common, however white people speaking Changana are very rare. I make friends incredibly easy when speaking Changana, as people tell me that it demonstrates that I relate well with the people and have an interest in the culture. I have gotten loads of discounts and free stuff in the markets just by speaking, and its really too easy to make people laugh. I just start talking about bathroom humor, the swear words that I learned or harmless little insults and I immediately have a crowd around me listening and laughing. People tell me all the time that when I go back to the US I must teach people to speak Changana. I try to explain the futility as obviously nobody speaks it, nor probably has ever heard of it.
In front of my office there is a nice old cashew tree that people are accustomed to sitting in the shade and getting absolutely hammered on the locally brewed corn beer. They usually yell things at me and I yell back. This day there was a guy playing the guitar, and actually quite well, so I went over and danced around a bit with them. The guitar player stopped playing because he said he was tired. So I bought him more beer to energize him. The song is about trying to cross the border into South Africa.
Always enjoy your insights Evan.
haha I love the story of the women talking about your biking outfit. I laughed months ago when you told us you wore those tight little shorts, now I am laughing about the women discussing it, clueless that you are listening in on their gossip. … I have experienced the beauty of a face that opens up in appreciation and receptivity of an unexpected exchange when someone realized I speak their non-english language, it’s a wonderful experience.