Yoruba is a tonal language, which means that pretty much everything I say is unintelligible to anyone other than myself. Normally, this doesn’t matter – the people I’m trying to communicate with just smile, tell me I’m trying and wonder what the heck my gobbley-gook meant.
Today, for example, I informed the archive ladies that I will be going to Lagos to pick up my husband on Friday. This sentence sounded perfectly clear and understandable in my own head. The ladies, however, smiled kindly, asked (in English) what I was trying to say and then corrected my sentence . . . repeating back to me the exact words I had just said. Except with actual Yoruba tones instead of my (apparently) free-form version.
Good luck trying to understand me, people of Ibadan!
At other times my cavalier treatment of Yoruba tones has more serious consequences - like when people ask if I eat Nigerian food. I typically list the various Nigerian meals I’ve enjoyed and then end with something along the lines of “But I like pounded yam [iyan] the best.” Well, it turns out that I’ve been pronouncing ‘iyan’ with a high tone at the end, instead of the low tone it’s supposed to have – and therefore telling people that “I like famine the best.” That’s right. All over Ibadan, I’ve left a trail of people wondering why I like Nigerian food just fine, but I enjoy famine the most. (Also, when I tell people that I have a husband, I might also be telling them that I have a car, a farm or a penis. I’m never quite sure.)
Yams, not famine.