If you are like me, you are not especially skilled at learning and speaking new languages. However, though I am not great at speaking them, I do find certain things about languages fascinating. The fact that we can understand language at all is truly a miracle. The following is my attempt to communicate the amazing thing that language is, and I want to do that by describing my favorite things about the Malagasy language! My idea is not to help you learn the language, but to amaze you with things like grammar. (Only 22% of you will continue reading after that sentence.)
- The pronunciation of Malagasy is pretty easy, unlike English where a vowel makes whatever sound it wants, whenever it wants (i.e. “seen” and “been.” Who decided “been” should sound like Ben?) The main difference between Malagasy and English pronunciation is that “i” sounds like “ee” and “o” always sounds like “oo.” My favorite practice word is “mifofofofo,” pronounced meefoofoofoofoo, which means “breathe”.
- In Malagasy, verbs come first and subjects last. The word order is the equivalent of “Go to the store I,” and “Writes a blog post Ryan.” At first I thought, “Is it even sensical to put the verb first? How do they function as rational human beings if the verb comes first?” It turns out they function just fine.
- One difficulty for non-native speakers is that every verb starts with an “m”. Miazakazaka (run) Milalao (play) Mitoriteny (preach) Miresaka (talk) Mampianatra (teach) Mitomany (cry) et. I was about to pull all my fuzzy hair out learning verbs at first because they all sound alike.
- Why do all the verbs start with “m”? Because, the first letter, in this case “m” is what communicates the tense in Malagasy. There are only three tenses—present, past, and future—and you make them by changing the first letter. “M” is for present tense. “N” is for past tense. “H” is for future tense. Thus: mihinana = eat; nihinana = ate; hihinana = will eat.
- Verbs are not conjugated! This proves that those languages where you must say “I run” but “He runs” are just silly for all the extra work they create.
- The word for God is “Andriamanitra” which is just really long (6 syllables). In fact a lot of the words here are long, like “fanatanzaha tena” (7 syllables) which means sport. Or “famantarinandro” (6 syllables) which means clock.
- Many words in Malagasy are recursive, which sounds very interesting if you try it in English. What that means is, if you take a part of the word and repeat it to create a word that is almost the same. Examples will help, so I will pretend you can do this in English.
“What color is your prom dress?” “It is purplurple .” (It’s light purple.)
“Do you have a small dog or a big dog?” “My dog is smallsmall.” (My dog is kind of small.)
“We call that fruit a mangao.” “We use a word that is samame in English.” (We use a word that is almost the same in English.)
This doesn’t sound silly in Malagasy. I wish we could do it in English.
- One thing they really like to do is use the passive voice. So instead of saying, I lost the key, they would prefer you say the equivalent of “The key is lost by me,” or “Pierre was not seen by me today,” etc. In English, we would say that is a weak use of language, but they really like it.
- I’ll end with this one, because it seemed so strange to me at first. Malagasy does not use the verb be, which we conjugate as am, is, are, etc. You will probably think these sentences sound strange and childish: I hungry. The apples ripe. She my wife. Food good! The sentence incomplete. As strange as those sentences might sound, my guess is that you understood them. A language works just fine without the verb “to be.” Though you sound like a three-year-old if you neglect the verb “to be” in English, in Malagasy, that is just the way the language works!