What Do They Speak In Darfur?

by John McWhorter | April 16, 2009

I can have one dog or two dogS. Making the plural in English is not exactly rocket science.

But there's a land far, far away where making a plural seems like a game some kid made up. A thief is a kaam; if there's more than one, then there are kaama. So, you just add -a, right? Well, no. An eye is nuungi, but eyes are not nuunga. They're kuungi. For some reason you change the first sound instead of adding a sound at the end. Then there are words that for some reason do both of the things we just saw. A side is a nundang. Sides are k-undang-a.

And it just gets worse; it's like grammar as acid trip. Some plurals just make no sense at all. A child is a kwe. Now, we have a weird plural for child, children--but in this language, the singular is kwe but the plural is dogala!

Then there are things about the language that are just fun. Somehow their sound for a lion's roar is Oo-oo-ing!, which doesn't sound like a lion to me, but they are in a better position to know than I am.

And that is a clue that the people who speak this language live in Africa. This is the Fur language, one of the main languages or Darfur, the Land of the Fur, that is. Of course, this is the area in Sudan where millions of dark-skinned Africans have been killed or driven from their homes over the past several years.

We're all straight on what an abomination it was that we let a genocide happen in Rwanda. Clinton has apologized for that, we've heard Samantha Power's articulate interviews based on her book A Problem From Hell. We know about Hitler, we know about "Never Again."

And yet, as people are tortured daily in Darfur, our headlines chatter on about Lindsay Lohan's loneliness, Sarah Palin's family dramas, and what kind of dog the Obamas happen to have chosen.

Shmuel Rosner at Slate opines that America only intervenes in genocides when "it has no other urgent tasks to deal with." But Clintonians were not exactly at a loose end when they decided to intervene in a serious way (i.e. with bombs) in Bosnia in 1998. After all, that same year Clinton was concerned with little things like bombing Sudan and Iraq, not to mention trying to deflect us from his shenanigans with "that woman."

Surely part of the reason is that the Bosnian cast of characters seemed more like us--Westerners, literate. And yes, white.

But race alone is a crude metric here. We know, intellectually, that the Darfur people are human beings. As it happens, their sound for a beating heart is beetbeeting, almost as if they were trying to sound like English speakers! I submit that if in an alternate universe some marauders of some sort were trying to exterminate all Haitians in Haiti, there would be an immediate and decisive response from Washington. There would be a lobby - of Haitians. And that lobby would compel us, partly because Haitians are well known in many parts of America as living, breathing human beings.

But we don't meet people of Darfur. They don't use the Internet. We don't know anything interesting about them.

This, then, is my small attempt to show something. One might think that "Berlitz" languages of major powers were more complex than languages of "indigenous" peoples; i.e. "simpler." Wrong: big fat languages have usually been used to a great extent for generations as second languages by adults too busy to learn them "for real." It dumbs them down.

It's what happened to English when Vikings beat it up, as I describe in my latest Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. It's what happened to Mandarin Chinese, the lingua franca of Chinese people who speak other Chinese varieties. Mandarin is hard enough - but try Taiwanese and risk a stroke. Indonesian is no picnic - but most Indonesians, speaking other languages natively, have long been hacking away at it. Try to learn, say, the language of the Sumatran province of Aceh, long resisting Indonesian dominance, at your peril. A book Language Interrupted by (I forget who) lays this sort of thing out at length.

Fur is like Taiwanese and Acehnese. As a normal language - that is, one rarely learned by foreigners and thus not chipped down into user-friendliness - it is so complicated that learning it after toddlerhood could be dangerous to one's mental health. It's also, for the record, an especially precious language in that it doesn't have any close relatives like English has German and Swedish. It's a hothouse plant.

Don't even get me started on the verbs in Fur. For some verbs, the way to say that he did something instead of that I did it, you make the first two letters in the word switch places! "I hit" is lodi, "he hit" is oldi. Then with others, to say that he did it, you tack some sound to the word you use to say I did it, and you just have to know which sound for each verb. "I bought" is ula, "he bought" is jula--but while "I dug" is urto, "he dug" is not jurto but kurto, for no particular reason. And these aren't the irregular verbs--they're the normal ones. We'll just pass the irregular verbs in silence.

The insults are good, too. One memorable one is "Your anus is rough and stinking and you have not plucked its hairs!" Another one is "It's your sandal." The Fur use it to tell someone to deal with something themselves--"It's your sandal, not mine."

There are many reasons that Darfur should be as urgent a horror to us as it would be if in France Jean-Marie Le Pen took power and starting working on a sequel to the Final Solution. One is the Fur's powerlessness. Another is their humanity. As to a truly vivid indication of the latter, maybe this is just the linguist in me talking, but I think one thing that should qualify is that so many of the people speak a language that is harder to master than quantum mechanics.

This is, at least, one of many ways we can get in touch with thinking of the Darfur victims as persons rather than as statistics, and one more step towards a wider understanding that the Darfur victims are our sandal too.

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