Word Play



 Learning Sereer has given me the privilege to develop an intimate understanding of Sereer culture and way of life. As with any language, there are words in Sereer that can’t be directly translated or captured in English. These are words for experiences or emotions which are entirely absent or whose definition has to be circumnavigated with synonyms and examples that cannot fully capture the potency and exactness of its meaning. For example, there is a word that describes the happiness you feel when warmed by the morning sun. While there are remarkably specific words for obscure feelings or experiences, at the same time, Sereer can be limiting in expressing what in English we consider very real and frequent emotions, like frustration. Frustration simply does not exist in the vocabulary, and the nearest relative is the word which means both an anger and sadness to the brink of tears. Before learning Sereer, I never realized how many words in English can dissect and distinguish emotions, translate specific moods, and represent profound feeling, depth, and complexity. It’s like having one of the most complete, diverse, and esoteric color wheels in the world. Sereer, however, is an entirely different palette, since there are only a few words to paint with. Many words commonly found in the English emotional inventory are dulled, blended, and blurred into levity or vagueness. The ambiguity is not necessarily better or worse, it’s just different and an intriguing contrast. Below are some words I found especially interesting in their definition or pronounciation.

a buga: to want, to like, to love

a doma: to be difficult, to hurt or be in pain

a fela: to be pleasing, to be delicious, to be entertaining

a mosa: beautiful, exceptional

gim: to believe, to sing

war: to have to do something, to kill

naan: to hear, to understand

delem: tongue, word

teex: wood, medicine

jaffe jaffe: problem

bugee bugee: goals, aspiration

xom xom: knowledge, experience

a jega solo: it has importance

njietnyaakoox: happiness from letting the sun warm you in the morning

A felangaa Roog: maybe, if it is pleases or entertains God

Sereer is also language that resides in the hypothetical happenstance, the eternal maybe, a mentality of indefiniteness. There is no ‘when’, only ‘if’, and whether the situation will happen as planned is always subject to God’s fancy. It is no longer a surprise that the word ‘to have to do something’ and ‘to kill’ are the same word; ‘war’. Discerning the distance of time and space is one of my favorite language quirks to play with. You can describe the distance of a well or village and the expanse of time of by the speaker’s emphasis of ‘aaaaa’. For example maaga = far; maaaaaaga = very far::  yaaga = a long time ago, perhaps last year, yaaaaaga= very long time ago, likely 50 years. Similar to other languages in Senegal, Sereer is frequently punctuated by feeling. You will often hear ‘whyee’ at the end of a favor, a thank you, or a command. It’s not an actual word, just a noise to express a range of feeling from gratitude to exasperation. ‘Koi’ is another feeling sound which describes a sense of endearment and polite playfulness between relatives and strangers. Just as we have ‘really’ and ‘very’ to accentuate the magnitude and intensity of a verb or adjective, Sereer has a repetitive form. If someone really wants or loves something you say ‘abugabug’, if something is really short ‘arabarab’, really large ‘amagnamagin’, very beautiful ‘amosamos’, or something spoken that is very important ‘alayalay’.

As people move to larger cities where Wolof and French are the languages of business and leisure, the Sereer language is beginning to slowly disappear. Even in my road town, many Sereer children speak only Wolof and French since they are not taught Sereer by their parents. However, there are still many Sereer radio stations, musicians, Sereer books, and even several Catholic masses delivered in Sereer. I hope to continue practicing Sereer back in the states and am currently writing down as many Sereer words and proverbs as I can to contribute to a revised Sereer dictionary to help preserve this unique language.


3 comments on “Word Play

  1. Sara Winsemius says:

    This is really interesting!! I look forward to seeing more of your blog posts, been thinking about you and wondering how you are!

  2. Alex Marshall says:

    Mikhael Kazzi – I don’t know why I haven’t seen this blog until now… but I LOVE it. you will definitely be getting a long email soon. I miss you! This post is so interesting… I can’t even begin to pronounce that warmed by the morning sun word… but I wish I could and I would use it immediately!

  3. Naomi Shank says:

    Hi Mikhael,
    My name is Joomaay, I am a serer married to a PCV. My wife showed me your piece and I read it with great interest but also with a little bit of Frustration(Kam fo mbagu=my inside feelings are emptied). The basis on which you are doing an assessment of the serer language is not the Real Serer Language but the a Serer Slang. In other words it is like using the English that is spoken in Harlem and generalizing on the Grammar or Vocabulary of the Proper English. You also take Words without really understanding their etymologic origin. In Serer the word WAR (wareef) is a Waalaf word that may come from Arabic. It is borrowed by the serer and happens to be a synonym of another word that already existed. However WAR in serer is very specific, it means to KILL something that is not HUMAN. If you want to say KILL a Human Being the word that Serer uses is BOOM which carries a forbidding connotation. If War in the sense of doing something was considered a Chore by the Serer than it will contradictory to the fact that WORK and LAUGH are carried by the same word JAL (Jalel=job).
    In a nutshell,
    The Serer Language is a very complex language. It can by traced as far back as Ancient Egypt and Cheikh Anta Diop has done an excellent job in the sense. There are excellent Serer linguists that can help you have a much deeper understanding of the language that you seem to be so excited to learn about.
    Amiin Rog Sen(infinite) fo Pangool ke (The Prophets/Saints) a ndimleong na a qiral ndigigil ne.
    Bo kom lakas,

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