As a traditional agricultural language with a severely limited vocabulary, Fulfuldé tends to be easy for the non-Fulbé speaker to pick up. There are areas in which, like the Inuit and his famous 100 descriptors of snow, Fulfuldé soars to linguistic heights I had not imagined were necessary; for example, the verb “to harvest” can take one of many forms, depending on the crop, the season, the amount of rain at time of harvest, and exactly what’s being done to which part of the plant, and by whom. Religion has taken as its own a fair number of words from Arabic; folding clothes and folding a prayer mat use different verbs.
In most ways, though, Fulfuldé is pretty basic, borrowing any vocabulary that was not relevant 500 years ago from French—thus “fork”, “airplane”, “school”, and “bureaucrat” were sewn on whole cloth. Sometimes, though, Fulfulde uses what common words exist to create remarkable talk-arounds, which make perfect sense, but still amuse me.
Fruit: bukkoy lédé, “tree children”
Puppy: bikkoy rawanduu, “dog-child”
Caucasian (straight) hair: gasa basgojé-basgojé, “okra hair”… because it’s slippery.
Market bag: waaka dada, “the thing that mamas put on their heads”. This is disingenuous; mamas put everything on their heads.
Mean, cruel: nyadi, “bad meat”
Complain: wolwugo be holo, “talk noisily”
To cook meat: wulugo, “burn”. This is the same verb used to describe burning trash, or burning the fields after the harvest. Well done indeed.
Ink: dawa da’ché, “charcoal-tree sap”
Drown (sadly this happened a few times when the rains started; suddenly there was a river to bathe in, and no one knows how to swim): mayugo nder ndyam, “die inside water”
I should note that Fulfuldé varies pretty widely by region. The joke goes that it was born in the Extreme North, grew up in the North, got old in the Adamaoua, and went to die in the East—where it’s so slangy and mixed with languages coming in from the CAR and the Congo that I had a hard time understanding much more than basic greetings. By the standards of Maroua, where Fulbé intellectuals speak the Northern version of Queen’s English (Lamido’s Fulfuldé?), villageoise language is childish; there may be actual words for smooth hair, or ink, but here they’re explained conceptually (black like charcoal, runs like sap…)
I recently began organizing weekly French classes for women with a primary school teacher, Gertrude. One of my first friends in Mandama, Gertrude and I had talked frequently about barriers to development and education in the North. We recognized that women’s illiteracy and lack of dominant language skills is a huge impediment to their involvement in the workforce and their entry into higher education—in short, it is one of the primary factors keeping cyclical poverty in place. Although neither of us are native Fulbé speakers—Gertrude is from the dirty South and loud enough to leave no doubt of the fact—she has been in Mandama for 6 years and is more than competent in Fulfuldé. We decided it would be better for us to teach, as living examples of women’s empowerment, than to enlist a Fulfuldé speaking male teacher. If all goes well, we will begin the classes in November, when the peanut harvest is over, using Fulfuldé as the language of instruction to teach French. I’m sure this will vastly improve my Fulfuldé fluency—and I’m sure I’ll run across more charmingly literal word-chain descriptors. Look out for them in the months to come.