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.