Before we signed on to join the missionary team in Menya, we were warned repeatedly that the language belonged to the dreaded “Angan” language family. Some missionaries have given up their attempts to learn Angan languages after years of trying and others have only accomplished the feat after five or even ten years. At the time of our warning, what made Angan languages challenging was a mystery to us. But now that I am deep in the weeds, about thirty months in, I know exactly why it’s so hard. So here is my list of the top five hardest things about Menyan:
#5 Kin Nouns
I hate kin nouns. They aren’t something I have to deal with everyday, but I hate them. In Menyan, instead of indicating whose relative someone is with a possesive pronoun like my, your, his, etc., each of those gets its own word. My father is “apiqo.” Your father is “tniqo.” His father is “kaniqo.” There are at least eleven different words for father and every other of the 18+ relatives they distinguish. “Tungwequ” is your youger brother and “tasipeqo” is my older brother–see the relation? Me neither. Not the hardest thing overall, but my least favorite for sure.
#4 The Sounds & Their Blending
It’s hard to describe in writing what’s challenging about the new sounds we have had to learn here in Menya, but can you distinguish between a “k” and a “backed-k.” I bet you can’t. Since we can’t test that in a blog post, try pronouncing “ptuqu,” “mbwayu,” “ktapuqi,” or “imatndnu.” Once you have all the sounds in your repertoire, see what happens when different combinations come together. As an example, the verb root for “eat” is “n”–just the letter. “I’m gonna it” is “numu.” “I ate yesterday” is “guquqe” and “they are going to eat tomorow” is “bunoowi.” What happened to the “n”? If you think it’s between the “u” and “o” in that second one, you’re wrong. It’s in the “g” and the “b” respectively. Though this was initially daunting, it’s something that, thankfully, I’ve gotten a handle on.
#3 Location and Direction
In Menya, we can’t just “go” and “come.” We always have to go up, down, or level and come up, down or level. And even when you indiciate that you are going up, you also have to point out that the palce to which you are going is up there. “Nyi (I) wongwu (garden) yotoongqu (up to it) yuqu (I’m going up.) There are two up indicators in that one sentence and both are necessary. Also whether a place is above, below or level (in elevation) there are multiple words to indicate how far away it is. The “way down there” house isn’t the same as the “down there” house. And across the river is an entirely different category. Interestingly, this principle taught us that Menya is the top of the world–leaving, you always go down and returning, you always come up.
#2 The Verbs
Wes has estimated that a single verb can take over 10,000 forms. I refuse to accept that in order to maintian my sanity. Nonetheless, the challenges of the verbs are multivarious. The basic problem for us (English speakers) is that lots of things we are used to accomplishing with multiple words–symantically and syntactically speaking–all get piled on the verb. So the word “ktapukuquqe” means “I gave it to you a long time ago.” That one word covers subject, indirect object, predicate and tense. And speaking of tense, in English we have three: past, present and future. Menyans have remote past, middle past, near past, present, future, and distant future. Multiply all those by two because the past actions could have been continuous or completed and the future actions may or may not be intended. If you want to make an action negative, on-going, questionable, or a question, there are corresponding prefixes, infixes and suffixes slapped on to the verbs for each of those. All that applies to a sentence with a single verb. If you want to put two verbs in the same sentence, you enter a entirely new paradigm of forms indicating whether the actions occured simultaneously or sequentially and whether or not the same subject perfomed both actions. “Nyi(I) hiku(stone) utnumuqagu…” is an incomplete sentence because “untumuqagu” means “I had thrown it and then someone else did something next (yet to be revealed.)” So verbs take first place in individual hard things about Menyan, but as you can see, the all-around champion surpasses even them.
#1 All at Once
The hardest thing about learning Menyan is learing it all at once. There are no Menya classes or Menya teachers. No one who knows Menyan has ever thought about how to teach it. So there is not a systematic, progressive learning plan. You can’t start with the basics and build to the complex without a lot of effort to train your own teachers. (I’m very thankful that the guys I call my language tutors have come a long way in understanding this.) But most Menyans expect every aspect of a sentence or story to be completely correct every time. Walking around the village, I might tell a story about our recent trip to Australia concentrating intensely on (Hard Thing #2) getting all the verbs lined up and connected correctly. But while I’m telling the story, I might get corrected a dozen times because Australia is down there not way down there and I said the jelly fish stung him when I meant it stung me becasue I got the affectee-prefix wrong and don’t say “we,” say “my family” and all I want to say is “Yeah, but did you hear those verbs?”
So those are some of the reasons learning Menyan is so hard. But don’t feel sorry for me. I love doing it. I know the Menyan laguage is the key to communicating deep Biblical truths to the Meyan people. And more and more I’m experiencing something extremely rewarding: when I tell a long story or attempt a complicated construction and then my tutor smiles and says “kayootnu”–”you said it right.”