Learning another language doesn’t just mean changing the words that come out of one’s mouth. It also requires changing the way in which one thinks – wrapping the brain around an entirely new culture. Culture and language are inextricably linked.
So attempting to switch from English to Bemba means I must alter not only my speech, but also my perceptions.
It’s a fundamental shift that, for me, is happening panono panono (slowly slowly).
Think of the old adage about Inuit languages having dozens of words for snow. Bemba has a seemingly infinite number of very specific words for planting, harvesting, processing, and cooking various foods.
Ba Deria, grinding millet. That’s “ukupela amale,” in Bemba.
Ditto anything to do with the many uses of trees.
On the other hand, Bemba has an apparent dearth of words with which to explain emotions and superlatives – something that frequently confounds this easily excitable PCV. The same verb, “ukufulwa,” is used for “to be angry,” “to be annoyed,” and “to frown.”
Amazing? Interesting? Fantastic? All fall under the same phrase, “Cawama sana,” which simply means, “It’s very good.”
There is literally no way to say “I love you” in the way that native English speakers would use the phrase. The word icitemwiko means love, but it seems to be used mostly to describe larger concepts, like God’s love. In typical speech, there is only, “I like you a lot” or “I prefer you a lot.”
Now take the concept of respect, which permeates Bemba language and culture. (My neighbors are fond of telling me that in English there is no respect.)
There’s the use of “Ba” (esentially a gender-neutral “Mr.” or “Mrs.”) before a name; the word “mukwai,” which doesn’t really translate but denotes respect and can be added to any greeting or statement; and whether one uses the polite or impolite form of a command. Personal pronouns and verb conjugations also depend on whether the person being addressed has earned respect: those without respect are addressed as “iwe!” the impolite form of “hey you!”
Basically, the older the person, the greater the respect. From what I’ve been told, anyone who is under 30 years old or so, or anyone who has no children, automatically gets no respect, at least in speech. (Despite my childless-ness, I still get respect. Muzungus ALWAYS get respect, much to my chagrin.) Also, one will always refer to one’e elder siblings with respect, and to one’s younger siblings without respect, no matter how old you all get.
This is another Bemba concept with which I struggle. I speak respectfully to any child over age five. I have adapted over time, however. I used to refer even to babies with the respectful form of verb conjugation.
They may be adorable, but in Bemba, the kids of Mfuba get no respect.
One of the toughest mental shifts for me remains the use of polite versus impolite commands. Anyone in the above-mentioned “no respect” category will be ordered about in the following manner: “stop that!” “come here!” “give me that!” “hurry!”
“Iwe! Sweep my yard!” Young girls like Cila (left) and Joyci get no respect.
The exclamation marks aren’t my own exaggerations. These commands are typically shouted. (As is, to my let’s-discuss-this-calmly English sensibilities, well over 50 percent of all spoken Bemba.)
Me, though, I just can’t stop myself from politely saying: “please stop that,” “please leave my yard,” and “please go home,” even to a screaming bunch of five-year-olds.
I also continue to ask, “Can you help me?” or, “Are you using your rake? Can I borrow it?” even though everyone around me insists that this is NOT correct. I should simply say, “Help me,” “Loan me that,” or “Give me that.” And I should not get upset when someone uses these same phrases with me.
On the other hand, there is one thing about the Bemba mindset that I’ve taken to like a fish in a mountain stream. (Hahaha. There are no mountains here. But of course my neighbors use the word “mountain” to refer to hills. Barely perceptible inclines are called hills.)
Amapinda (proverbs) are many and varied and often inscrutable to the American brain. Yet I love them (I mean, I like them a lot) precisely for this reason. And possibly because I’m a sucker for a good metaphor.
Perhaps nothing gets at the heart of a culture – and a language – like the time-worn advice gleaned from proverbs.
So let me end this post with a few of my favorites; their rough translations; and what the heck they actually mean, at least as far as I understand them.
- Icikondo aciba cimo nga tacii pununa – A single person has no problems.
- Umunwe umo tausala inda – One hand cannot pick out a louse. (One person can’t do what many can do together.)
- Umupama pamo utule n’goma – To beat the drum again and again and again … (You must teach someone/reinforce teachings again and again …)
- Imiti ikula empanga – Small/growing trees make a forest. (Small things can add up/grow into big things.)