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September 3, 2010

Sometimes Hollywood blockbusters can benefit whole nations. Madagascar, the cartoon, has brought the fascinating island into the spotlight. Now all kids know about it. My son loves it. (Of course he also loves the fact that the lion has his dad’s name.)

It was a clever move of the cartoon creators to transport their heroes of African descent to Madagascar, of all places. The joke of nature is that Madagascar is supposed to be Africa, it looks like Africa, it is close to Africa, yet it has little in common with Africa. There are no lions, giraffes or zebras there. (That’s why the lemurs were so surprised!) If you want to meet those African beasts you need to cross the Channel separating the island from the mainland, but on Madagascar itself there’s the undivided rule of endemic species.

Likewise, the Malagasy language has no African roots. It is a member of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. It is related to the languages of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Unlike the animal word, however, it has, over centuries, been influenced by Africa, if only a little. The merchants arriving from the continent have lent Malagasy some words from Swahili and other Bantu languages. It has also been influenced by Arabic. ‘Hello’ is ‘salama’ in Malagasy – sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Not being an expert in Madagascar or Malagasy, I am absolutely fascinated by what I’ve learned about the language. Here are the top seven fascinating facts:

Fact 1. Madagascar is the only language spoken throughout the country, which is amazing given its size and ethnic diversity. For example, New Guinea, only a third larger than Madagascar, has 700 languages. Africa has 1,500 languages. There are 18 dialects of Malagasy but they are all very similar to one another.

Fact 2. There are no genders in Malagasy, and I don’t just mean grammatical genders but gender pronouns too. ‘Iz’ stands for ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it’ depending on the context. ‘A man’ and ‘a woman’ are the same word ‘lehilahy’, and it is interpreted depending on the context. (How about that for the ultimate manifestation of gender equality?)

Fact 3. There are no plural or singular forms either. ‘Iz’ also stands for ‘they’. ‘Vazaha’ means both ‘a white person’ and ‘white people’ depending on the context.

Fact 4. The word for both ‘please’ and ‘sorry’ is ‘azafady’ and it literally means ‘may it not be a taboo to me’ (so poetic!)

Fact 5. ‘Poetic’ can characterize the language as a whole. No conversation is complete unless it is sprinkled with some clever euphemisms and timeworn proverbs.

Fact 6. Tompoko (pronounced “Toomp’k’ rather than like the Spanish for ‘neither’) is a polite phrase which can be added at the end of any question or answer. It is the equivalent of ‘Madam’ or ‘Sir’ – again the sex doesn’t matter.

Fact 7. Tromba, ombiasy and  famadiahana. I suppose there are no equivalents to these words in other languages, because they are part of this unique culture. The Malagasy worship the dead. They believe that the spirits of the dead inhabit everything in nature. They believe that dead ancestors are involved in the affairs of the family. Their graves often look more elaborate than the homes of the living. So tromba is when the spirits get angry and put you into a trance in which you dance uncontrollably. (I wonder how common an occurrence it is on the island!) Ombiasy is the spirit healer who can pull you out of that trance. Famadiahana is the annual celebration when family members remove their ancestors’ bodies from the family tomb to wrap them up in a fresh shroud cloth and thus keep them pleased. It is accompanied by music, singing and dancing.

One more thing I remember once reading about Madagascar is that while buses and trains always leave on time in some countries, may be delayed in others, in Madagascar they won’t leave until enough people have gathered. Maybe it’s not true anymore. At any rate, the pace of life still seems to be slow according to Clare Callow (this part is not about the language per se, but it is about talking in Malagasy, and talking habits are halfway between language and culture, aren’t they?):

‘The Malagasy way of life can be frustrating to those of us brought up in Western countries where things are expected to be done ‘yesterday’ and much importance is placed on punctuality. In Madagascar, before every action there is a good few hours of discussion about the best way to carry it out, the best person for the job and what risks are involved, even if the job is simply banging a nail into a piece of wood. But actually, this makes the whole pace of life much slower and makes everyone seem a lot more relaxed and at ease. Don’t get me wrong, the Malagasy staff that we were with worked harder than anyone else I’ve met when they eventually started.’

Too bad the popularity brought by the cartoon has not been able to do anything to end the poverty in Madagascar. Only 12% of the roads there are paved. There is poor sanitation in rural areas. The life expectancy is 12% below world average. I started by saying ‘Sometimes Hollywood blockbusters can benefit whole nations.’ I should have emphasized the hypothetical aspect of the English modal verb ‘can’.

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