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July 4, 2008 Word of the Day: Good (iHla)

(Happy 4th of July, Americans! I don’t get it as a holiday, because I’m on the Moroccan calendar, but I hope y’all are having a great one! Light up a sparkler and think of me! :) )

IHla. He is good, or that-masculine-thing is good. Like most adjectives in Tamazight, it’s conjugatable (Hlagh, tHlat, iHla, tHla, nHla, tHlam, tHlamt, Hlan, Hlant). It’s also unbelievably versatile.

In English, “good” has many shades of meaning. Consider:

I feel good. (health)
I look good. (beauty)
I do good. (charity)
I am good. (character)
Good student. (diligence)
Good idea. (cleverness)
It’s all good.

In Tamazight, “Hla” means all of these things. All. And without any helping verb (feel, look, do, be…) to clarify which meaning the speaker intends. You just get to figure it out from context.

There’s some obvious ambiguity created by this…among other things, it becomes possible to give a compliment with many possible interpretations. “Tabratnm tHla” – Your daughter is good – could mean anything from praising her character to calling her beautiful. Which enables potential suitors to get away with saying things that might be intended in a slightly Hshuma (inappropriate, shameful, naughty, etc) way, without getting decked.

I asked my multilingual host dad how to express “good idea”. He recognized the concept of “bonne idée” in French, and thought about it for a long minute before telling me that there was no equivalent expression. “You just say it’s iHla,” he finally admitted.

The flipside of this is “ixxa”, which is bad. (Be careful with this one – the “they are bad” conjugation is identical to the word for excrement.) Earlier today, I was having a fun conversation in the kitchen with my host mom and a few aunties and cousins – all female – and one of them made a rather naughty joke. I blushed and looked away. My rule of thumb in these kind of situations, to avoid crossing the line and being Hshuma, is to either act like I don’t get the joke or else act like I’m embarrassed by it – which sometimes isn’t an act at all! After everyone had finished their chuckling, my host mom, smiling, informed me that this auntie is crazy, which got another big laugh, and then she said that she’s bad. Txxa. And I suddenly realized that ixxa must have as many shades of meaning as iHla. And I don’t know what they are. Was Ama saying that my auntie is bad-mannered? Inappropriate? Naughty? A bad example? Using bad language? All of the above? Or was it a half-admiring, “Oooh, she’s so baaad,” kind of comment? (And yes, I’m fully aware of the irony that “bad” has as many shades in English as it does in Tam. But we have more hints in English, usually, as to which shade is intended. Or maybe it’s just because I’m fluent in American culture, and can read the glint in an eye or a pursed lip, and I’m still mostly illiterate in those, here.)

The versatility of language gives me hope that I might actually learn all of the words in Tam – that, like French, there just *aren’t* as many words as in English, and therefore that much less to memorize – but also makes me realize how much more there is to learn than the vocabulary…

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