Tatavavalagi; or, English

I would like to take a moment out for appreciation of language at large. Here are a few things I have learned about English and Fijian over the past year and a half.

  1. Tenses don’t have to matter. While we almost always specify the tense we are using in English by conjugating verbs, Fijians rarely make tense explicit. Instead, context drives an understanding of what tense is being spoken of. Stories are most often told in present participle, such as “ko koya sa kana doko, qei la me o ka sa mateni!” – “he/she is eating taro, then the drunk person comes!” If the future is being discussed, a time will be mentioned, typically this afternoon, tomorrow or morning, rather than specific times (and voila, Fiji Time! according to our Western sense of time). If one is checking on whether you have just done something, they will add oti after the verb, as in sa kana oti? or sa viasili oti?, meaning “have you eaten?” or “have you showered?”. This is most likely if you are going to go grog.
  2. Phoneticism is nice. Fijian is essentially entirely phonetic, meaning that all words can be read the same way, nearly without exception. In English, on the other hand, we have silent letters (psychology), confusing rules about proper pronouncation based on the order of e and I in a word (ceiling vs. die) and even the occasional accented word from another language (naïve).
  3. English is remarkably homogenous; or, Fijian is extremely heterogenous. Though different parts of the English-speaking world favor certain words over others and a few other oddities (the British say “go to hospital and the church” while Americans are more likely to say “go to the hospital and church”), words largely mean the same across the world. In Fiji, rough terrain has resulted in intense localization and differentiation. In Sabeto, we say la me kwaya ke, while Nadi, five kilometers away, says la me ko ke, Waya Island off the coast says laka mai ko ke and people in Suva say lako mai i ke – all just meaning “come here”.
  4. English and Fijian are very, very fundamentally distinct. While many, many concepts translate with only a little more than a shift of accent from English to Spanish (society to sociedad, government to gobierno, prejudice to prejudicio), words in Fijian only have similarity like that if they are colonial introductions (car to lori, computer to kompiuta), while more basic concepts are much differently conceived (society to isoqosoqo, government to matanitu, prejudice to veivakaduiduitaka).What’s much more important, though, is the grammatical concepts that are nearly impossible to translate. For example, in Fijian, “me” (pronounced “meh”) can mean anything from “should” to “will make” to “and then”. “Kana kakana raurau me tubu vacolacola” means “eating leafy greens will make you grow healthy.” “E donu me vatilou na tuqwaqwa” means “you should say tilou to your elders“. “E vina cake me la,” means “it’s better to go.”
  5. There are some cool pronouns out there. Fijian has a vastly more diverse take on pronouns than in English. In Standard Fijian, there are around 30 basic pronouns, depending on the number involved and whether the speaker is included in the “we”. I.e. keirau is us two, not including you, while kedaru is just you and me. Kedatou, though, is you, me and a few others, while keda is you, me and everyone. Is there a more romantic notion than kedaru? As well, there are all of these pronouns then multipled by three different kinds of possession; objects, edible objects, and drinkable objects. Noqu baisakeli is my bicycle but kequ vakayakavi is my dinner and mequ wai is my water.

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