If you heard any of my presentations in churches or other settings before coming to the field, you may remember a brief explanation of the challenges that a tonal language presents, in that it facilitates errors created by saying what a foreign speaker considers the “right word” in the wrong tone. The words I used in the imaginary scenario were dog, brother, and banana, in case that jogs your memory.
Well, there is no more need for ridiculous invented examples; I have discovered several real ways to say the wrong word simply by using the incorrect tone (let alone the times I say the wrong word by getting syllables in the wrong order or leaving out a sound or putting the wrong sound at the end of the word). This tonal thing makes getting garlic oil in my eye seem like child’s play. (Garlic = alho. Oil = óleo. Eye = olho. The similarity of those words gave me trouble back in the early days of Portuguese learning). While there are certainly many more challenges to come, how would you like to hear the most confusing Neno example I’ve come across so far?
Enter “abi” *buzz buzz* (pronounce this word sort of like “a bee”)
abi 1 – bangs (as in hair)
abi 2 – on top of
abi 3 – killed (in hunting)
The tones are different, very subtly, so a friend kindly recorded sentences with each usage, so I can listen several dozen hundred times until the slight differences will sink in, hopefully. In addition to the actual tones (high, middle, low, ascending and descending), sometimes a syllable is drawn out to change the meaning as well.
The fact that these words sound the same to gringo ears, is a new thought to my Neno teachers. Remember that in their language, these are completely different words, and would never be confused by a native speaker, or even by someone who speaks another tonal language.
Imagine hearing your favorite song, by a different performer. He sings most of it right, but every so often, he sings a different note, still in the same key. Even though the word is the same, with the wrong note, it messes up the tune and drives you crazy. Since you have known the melody for years, the mistakes would be obvious to you, even though someone who had never heard the song probably wouldn’t know the difference.
That illustrates the intricacy of the Neno language. To non-tonal language speakers, many of the words sound the same, because we are not accustomed to thinking about pitch while we talk. But to the Neno, if I use the wrong pitch, it either sounds completely wrong, doesn’t sound like a word at all, or sounds like a different word altogether.
Considering that, it is a mark of their kindness and graciousness that the Neno do not react with an attitude of, “Wow, this missionary is dumb, how can she possibly get those words mixed up when it’s obvious they are different.” Instead, they act amazed, with an attitude of, “Wow she’s right. We never stopped to think about it, but those words are pretty similar, or are they exactly the same?” Then they repeat the words over and over to themselves, figuring out exactly what the those subconscious and subtle differences are. It’s as if they think it is terrific that I am making connections (or realizing when there are no connections), exploring and asking questions. Talk about encouraging. Oh, wait. I don’t know how to talk about encouraging in the Neno language yet, but someday I will thank these dear friends for the big encouragement they have been in the early months of language learning.
(Note made in mid-April: I drafted this post the second week of February. Well, just tonight, a fourth “abi” joined the other three already buzzing around in my bonnet.
abi 4 – fight
I’m toast, I’m toast, I’m toast! This tonal thing is going to “abi” me (see 3rd usage above). Don’t worry though; ACL is still loads of fun, and a truly delightful challenge. Brain is only about half as fried as the delicious freshwater fish that was the main course of my lunch today. However, here’s to hoping that no one exposes another “abi” anytime soon, because my ears and tongue are not ready to learn them yet, until I master these four, thank-you-very-much.