It’s not Babel

Sunday, January 16
After we left the Gambia, I started to write a short post about some of the roadside signs that caught my eye there. Among those that made me laugh were:

Bourimbye Gym: Build muscles and loose fat!

Santa Yallah Spear Parts Shop

Vita Lait — The Muscle Milk for Kids

HIV & AIDS — I Know My Status.  Do you?

But when Steve read what I’d written, he pointed out that it sounded like I was making fun of the Gambians; that my implication was they were uneducated or, worse, stupid. In fact, the truth about language and the way people use it in West Africa is way more complicated.

The official languages of West African countries are those of their former colonial masters: French in Senegal, English in The Gambia, Portuguese in Guinea Bissau, and so on. But most children are first exposed to a tribal tongue such as Wolof, Pulaar, Jola, Sereer, Mandinka, or some other.  These are not just dialects of each other but separate languages as different from each other as Danish is from Mandarin. It’s common for ordinary West African who never got much formal education to speak two or three or more. (I think Laura ticked off seven or eight in which her host mother can communicate effectively.) 

This astounded me, and when I asked Laura how it was possible, she offered an interesting explanation.  The native cultures of West Africa are primarily aural ones. This tradition predates colonial times; the griots were (and I think to some extent still are) bards who not only entertained but also communicated history and other important information by means of their stories. “For us [Westerners], if we need to remember something important, we write it down. But that’s not the way it is here. If something is important, it’s told over and over.” I speculated that this aural orientation probably resulted in the average person’s having a far more advanced ability (than ours) to learn other languages simply by hearing them. 

Laura said the linguistic stew also means that people are more tolerant about mistakes in grammar and vocabulary, and time and again we could see that. The important thing is to get your message across, somehow. If your sign says “Spear Parts,” everyone will know you mean spare ones, and no one would think of snickering. 

Government poster in the Gambia urges citizens to handle currency carefully to prolong its life: Do not deface, fold, soil, ruffle or store the Dalasi indecently (i.e. in your cleavage, of which many Gambian ladies have ample supply).

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