Wednesday, 27 January 2010


I've just been perusing Alphadictionary's 100 most beautiful words in English. It's a lovely list, just nice to sit and read the words aloud. What's interesting about it though, is that from just a very brief scan through I can see a couple of French words and one Italian word, and one that drops almost directly from the Greek.

That's not a bad thing at all, it's probably what makes the language so very beautiful - all those different sounds each with their own incredibly precise connotations. I'm working my way through the Paris Review Interview books at the moment (I now have volumes 1 to 4, joy of joys), and one of the recurring themes is the beauty of the English language and how wonderful a language it is to write in. Chinua Achebe was discussing his writing, and he said that he writes very particular things in his own Igbo dialect, but for most things he uses English. There are particular feelings and emotions that his particular Igbo dialect can convey, and things it can't.

What I found most difficult when learning Malagasy was its simplicity. That sounds ridiculous, but I did actually find it very hard to express myself in a language with so few words. I kept feeling as though something was missing. There's no verb 'to be', there are no plurals, and there are just genuinely very few words. The word lava means tall as well as long. Ambony and ambany are the words for up and down, but they also mean things like high and low, and top and bottom. Tsara is beautiful as well as good, ratsy is bad as well as sinful and evil. The hardest thing is that verb tense is denoted by the first letter of the verb, therefore nandeha, mandeha, and handeha are the past, present and future forms of the verb 'to go'. Verbs are learned in the present tense, but I'd try to remember a verb and all I'd know was that it started with an 'm'.

Malagasy is most closely related to a group of languages spoken in Borneo, and it has some influence from Bantu languages and Arabic, but that was a very long time ago. The most recent changes in Malagasy have been in the past couple of hundred years, with some slightly altered English and French words, but really it's stayed the same for an extensive period.

I really liked learning Malagasy, and it has a huge number of interesting compound words that made me think about the meanings of words (my favourite being masoandro, the sun, which literally translates as day-eye), but I couldn't live forever without the complexities and subtleties of English. I love words, their sounds, the shapes they make as you roll them around in your mouth, and the way they fall beautifully onto pages. Mellifluous most of all.

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