Another result of the multiple colonizations is the regional dialects. Someone from the north (Sakalava) won’t be able to understand someone from the east (Betsimisaraka) The west is also distinct, and nobody understands anybody from the south. Even within the Betsimisaraka region (the name ironically translates to ‘the inseparable people’), there are distinct dialects in the north and south.
There is also Malagasy Official (which means Standard Malagasy in French) which is used on the radio and sometimes taught in school. Many people understand MO, but are unable to speak it. It is roughly the same as the Merina dialect, from the plateau region that was the French colonial capital, the historically most successful region at conquering the others and also the richest.
French is also taught in school, and English to a lesser extent. The English is new, so some kids and people my age speak it, but not many adults. This gets complicated. People assume I am French, so they speak to me in French. When we speak Malagasy, they use MO because they want to sound educated and because they assume it is what I know, even if they can’t speak it that well. During training, my host family refused to make any effort to understand the dialect I was learning, so I spoke MO at home and learned Betsimisaraka in the classroom. Peace Corps asked me to study French before I came.
This gets complicated, so I usually just follow the lead of the person I am trying to talk to in deciding what language or dialect to use. Here is an example of me trying to buy a can of sardines in an epicerie. There were 4 other men present, they get numbers: (side note, loka is side dish in MO, fish in BM)
1: bonjour, entre vous!
me: bonjour, avez vous le poisson?
me: oui, le poisson.
2: (points at the coke) misy coca.
me: tsy ti hanana coca. Misy loka?
2: loka? Ia, misy loka betsaka. Ino atao? (we have lots of loka, what do you want)
3: Misy tsara maso, pate, carroty...(there is beans, pasta, carrots...)
me: loka, trondro, poisson, fish (same meaning, different languages).
1234: blank stares....
me: (spotting it on the wall) Voici! Misy trondro!
3: aaahhhh, loka.
4: vouz parlez malagasy!
1: Mahay miteny Malagasy! trondro, loka! Ha ha ha! (you are good at Malagasy!)
You will notice that if I hadn’t spotted it, I would never have been able to buy it. This happens often. Many Malagasy people don’t realize that they have to speak slower to a person learning a language, and would not even consider trying a different word for the same meaning, even though there are usually many.
The one thing working in my favor is that Malagasy people love to point out the obvious. That one fact makes it a great place to learn a language. If I have a bag and am walking to the market, they will say “you are going to the market”. My counterpart walked up to me the other day and said “you have blonde hair”. This is completely normal, for them it is the best way to start a conversation.
Another peculiarity about being a foreigner who speaks Malagasy is that nobody expects it. More often than not, when I speak to someone, or just say hi in passing, they are to surprised to reply. I speak, they stare open-mouthed, I leave. If I go for ‘bon jour’, they can always manage a reply. After two or three times, people usually get over it and are able to reply, but the looks on their faces the first time are must be the most surprised I have ever seen.
Before I leave the subject of language I will point out three more particularities: First, subjects are often left out of sentences. They are supposed to go at the end, but usually don’t make the cut. Verbs are conjugated for past, present or future and offer no clues. I lived with a family in Alarobia for 2 months and was never able to figure out whether the dad was saying ‘you eat a lot’, ‘we eat a lot’, or ‘you should eat more’. Secondly: there is no verb ‘to be’ in the language. It simply does not exist, it is implied. This also complicates things. Sentences always sound naked, and I often have to rearrange the sentence in English to cut it out before I try to form the sentence in BM.
Lastly, there is no plural. There is one dog, two dog or many dog. So far this has caused me no problems, but I can tell already that it will be a challenge for my students to get in their heads.