When our focal lemurs are lounging up in the forest canopy, we relax as well, and use the time to bombard our guides with multitudes of questions about the culture, history, education, wildlife, politics, and language of Madagascar. In turn, we share stories about our lives in other countries and provide new English words. One of the most entertaining moments in the field has been swapping Malagasy and English tongue twisters. Our guides, knowing much more English than we know Malagasy, memorized our tongue twisters before we could even begin to pronounce the Malagasy tongue twisters correctly.
But in my opinion, English tongue twisters pale in comparison to
“Rambon-doumba ndRalambo Lava, Ralambo lava Rambon-doumba”
(The shirt tail of Ralambo is long; Ralambo has a long shirt tail)
“Voropotsy folo fotsifotsy volotsofina”
(Ten egrets with white ear hair).
Our guides have also taught us a number of Malagasy phrases and expressions that, although commonly used, make other Malagasy people laugh when we say them for the sheer amusement of hearing foreigners use their colloquialisms. One of these phrases is “Olombelo Tsy Akoko” which translates to “person not chicken”. This phrase is used when someone needs to go to the bathroom, because chickens do not urinate. Everyone chuckles when one of the volunteers, or guides, says this phrase before disappearing in the woods. Another Malagasy expression is Piso (pronounced Pee-shew), which is used as a Malagasy word for “bless you” after a person sneezes. But Piso also means cat in some dialects, and in others, is only used when a baby sneezes.
Madagascar has 18 dialects, which results in occasional confusion and miscommunication even among Malagasy people from various regions. But for foreigners, this can make cross-cultural communication nearly impossible when traveling across the country. Luckily, most important words and phrases are fairly universal, even if pronunciation varies across dialects. However, after learning that the word for yes in the capitol differs from the word yes in Kianjavato, just an 11 hour drive southeast, I came to realize that English-Malagasy dictionaries can only go so far in this country.