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1/18/13: What did you say?

Learning to use a new language in real life situations (rather than in the classroom) inevitably leads to some funny moments. I learned Arabic in rural Syria, and it turns out that dialect doesn’t help too much with Sudanese Arabic, to say nothing of the local Shaigiya tribal Arabic.

My first season produced some memorable mistakes. One day I wanted one of the workmen to excavate an area to the same level as the “base” of a pot. I used a word that means “base” or “bottom” in Syria but that means something like “booty” or “ass” in Sudan. And they were shocked, shocked, to hear such foul language from a foreigner.

Another time, I had what I thought was a nice conversation with a visitor to our site, and after he left, I had a visit from our Sudanese inspector Mahmoud, who asked me if I had really told the visitor that there were motorboats in 2000 BC, just like there are now. Well, I had meant “boats.” It’s apparently a subtle but important difference.

We had a great moment going the other way today. We’re in the middle of a Sudanese winter heat wave. I was sweating just drawing while standing in the shade. (I always kind of wonder if global warming might be good for places like Siberia or Canada; in Sudan, it will be deadly.) Anyway, one of the young workmen was shoveling sand into buckets and wheelbarrows so it could be taken away, and with every shovelful, he said “it’s boiling”—“sukhanet.” It works in English too, but in a much more aggressive sense. See if you can sound it out. A solid half hour of it had me laughing out loud.