Language of the Month: Malagasy

Language of the Month: Malagasy

Madagascar, the island home of the Malagasy language, sits between Africa and Asia and this is reflected in both its language and the genetic makeup of its peoples. The language shows strong connections with other Austronesian languages. It’s related strongly to other Malayo-Polynesian tongues spoken in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, but also to Fijian, Javanese Samoan etcetera. You can see this looking at the number-words; ‘five’ for example, is telo in Malagasy, and telu, tolu, and tolu respectively in Javanese, Fijian and Tongan. You can almost sense, in the language, the heritage of exploration and seafaring passed down by these ocean travelers.

But Malagasy also has a component of vocabulary from the Bantu language group in central Africa. This isn’t surprising, considering how close Madagascar is to East Africa. Genetic experts think that the island was settled originally by a group containing about 30 women, 2 of whom were of African origin, the rest being Polynesian.

Malagasy has about 70 variants, generally accepted as different languages rather than as dialects. On Madagascar itself the main language is the Eastern Malagasy variant called Merina, which, with French, is the national language. But there are scores of other variants, particularly on the southern and eastern sides of the island, whose speakers, for historical reasons, became less powerful. It’s a little like Norman French in 11th century Britain – it made sense to suck up to the conquerors, which in Madagascar’s case in the 15th and 16t century, were the highland Merina-speaking folk.

Don’t think that Malagasy is restricted to the island of Madagascar, though; there is an extensive diaspora in France and Belgium with an interesting if poignant offshoot in Peru. Here, as a result of slavery, an isolated group of Malagasy’s, known as Afro-Peruvians,  became active in the local catholic church. Here’s a picture of a saintly statue in a Peruvian church showing the African influence.

Malagasy as a language has some interesting and unusual aspects. It has quite a rare word order – VOS or Verb-Object-Subject – so you say ‘Gnawed the bone, the dog*’. VOS structure is common in the Austronesian and Turkic language groups and appears in many languages as a stress-marker. Italian, for example, can say ‘Essamineranno la casa molti architetti’ (Will examine the house many architects*). Here the subtlety is in stress-adjacency, the placement of the stressed idea MANY architects at the end of the phrase where it is remembered most easily by the hearer. Malagasy, unlike English, uses the same idea of stress-adjacency to form its verbs, having different orders for whether you want to emphasise the object of the action, the subject or the manner in which it’s being done. It’s like

The dog is enthusiastically gnawing the bone’

That bone is being gnawed by the dog enthusiastically!’

Enthusiastically, the dog gnaws the bone.’

Traditional Malagasy religion and myth are worth investigating. The idea of angatra, ghosts who haunt their own graves bringing misfortune on people who encounter them, is common. One particular type is the long nailed, red-eyed kinoly, who roam public areas at night, wailing and causing excitement and distress among observers. There is no known connection with Lady Gaga, but at least the kinoly stay away from meat-based clothing.

You can keep the angatra and kijoly away by observing fady (taboos) such as refraining from killing lemurs. Why should there be such a taboo, one might ask. After all a lemur, I imagine, would be a tasty snack if you’ve just sailed the seas from Borneo and are ready for your dinner. I suspect it’s their obvious genetic similarity to humans and a desire not to eat other people.

So, enjoy Malagasy, observe those fady and, please,  do try not to eat the lemurs.

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