Sunday, January 25, 2009

Liberian Primer I

The Encyclopedia, or at least Wikipedia, does say that Liberia's official language is English. Of course that doesn't mean that Americans can understand Liberian speech.
Liberians have their own way of speaking, called Collonqua, which is difficult to get a handle on. Right now I am halfway there, but at first it helps to know the many ways Liberians use English words uniquely. There are hundreds of examples, and in fact Liberians speak Book-English, which they call Serie, very eloquently, usuing plenty of ten-cent words when an American would just mumble something. I recently heard a man scolding his daughter wag his finger and say, "I will have no toleration for this type of behavior." as opposed to say, stop that.
There are lots of words and usages that have died away in the States, giving the Liberian language a wonderfully archaic quality. Hair is still "barbed", one "enters" a building rather than "going in", cars "carry" passengers rather than take them. I was told when arranging for a driver to meet me on arrival that he would "reach" the airport to "receive" me. Cars also "bend" at "junctions" instead of turning at intersections, and "branch" at forks in the road. Here are five more of my favorites:

Spoil. This is really common, unfortunately because lots of things are spoiled here. Spoil in American English is really limited to be a description of overripe food, but in Liberia it means more broadly to ruin or destroy. Anything messed up to the point where it probably can't be fixed is spoiled, whether its a physical object, or a process.

Fine. This is pretty simple, but a good one to know. Usually, when Americans respond in conversation by saying "fine!" it is sort abrupt, and might carry the meaning, "stop talking now". In Liberia it is instead the equivalent of "you're right" or 'your understanding is correct'. It can be a little alarming at first, when you think you are relating relevant facts in conversation, and the audience seems to be telling you to shut up.

Keno. Yes, bar-room casino games are popular in Liberia, but that's not what I am referring to. I use the word Keno as an example of words that you hear, that you think you understand, but which only throw you off from following the conversation. You endure a few sentences of bafflement until your mind kicks in with help from the context. In this case, "keno" is actually canoe. Today I had a Liberian tell me that his building materials were delivered by Keno, and I tried to picture how the lottery game facilitated his supply chain. Another example is, when I gave a friend printed pictures of his family, he lamented that he didn't have an I-beam. At first I wondered how structural steel could be related to viewing family photos, until it dawned on me that I-beam was actually album.

Eat. The particular usage I find interesting and somewhat sad is the term "eat the money." That's when you pay for someone to do something and they just take the money and don't do it, such as when you go to get something fixed and they charge you upfront and don't fix it, and don't give you any money back. I guess we don't have a similar phrase because that doesn't often happen. Its commonplace here.
Incidentally, to be a regular weightlifter is to be a "bodyman" who "eats iron."

Jeep. This is one of my favorites, as it manifests the long and unique history between the United States and Liberia. The term SUV is roaring ahead, but when I showed some kids pictures of my car at home, they all yelled Jeep! Jeep! This likely is ultimately a legacy of the huge American armed forces presence here during World War II. I have asked around to hire (or as they say "charter") a car for the week, and was asked if I wanted a Jeep.

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