Monday, June 29, 2009

The Sound of Stories

Mozambicans punctuate their speech with the most wonderful assortment of exclamations I've ever heard. From grunts of dissatisfaction to falsetto squeals of delight, stories are told with great, melodic accompaniment. It's sadly quite difficult to capture these sounds in writing, though I will try.

There is a particular sound made to express disbelief or injustice, sort of an "Êêê!" that is low in pitch and delivered with a glottal stop at the beginning, a bit like what happens when one is punched in the stomach, but with a strong, vocal grunt instead of a wheezing out of air. Our guards do this one frequently, and I can hear them "Êêêê"-ing back and forth while they tell stories to pass the time.

An example of use might be:

"O patrão disse que ia me pagar o salário na semana passada, mas até agora, nada."

"Êêê! Não pagou nada? Assim não se faz..."

Another common one is a high-pitched exclamation used to show excitement. It is a bit like a glissando on a piano, starting from way up in the treble notes and running down about an octave. This expression sounds like a squeaky "Iiiih!" at the beginning, and ends on a lower note with a hint of breathiness. This excited interjection is one of Zeca's all time favorites, and sometimes he will tell a story so full of "Iiiih's" that I wonder if he might hyperventilate.

An example:

"Iiiih, Dona Ali. Tas a ver aquele gajo que era guarda da minha praça, aquele que andou a roubar espelhos? Iiiih! Parece que a polícia apanhou ele, e iiiiiih, o gajo tentou fingir que não era com ele, mas iiiiiiiiiiih, quando olharam na mochila dele tinha quatro espelhos, e aí já não tinha como negar. Iiiiiih, esses malandros, pá!"

There are many other animated expressions used by Mozambicans on a regular basis, but one has a special place in my heart (and in my vocabulary). It is an exclamation frequently used in Manica Province, and it is a two-part sound: Xiiiiiiiiii-uaaaaaaaah (or in English-pronunciation, Sheeeeeee-whaaaaah). The first bit you say with almost a falsetto voice, starting at a very high register, then come cascading down with the pitch until you are at a guttural end. It is used in a very specific context, essentally light-hearted situations about which one might say in Portuguese, "Vai dar merda."

For example, one of our old housemates was an absolute genius with computer hardware. The guy was a real IT prodigy, and would dismantle and reassemble laptops and hard drives well into the wee hours of the morning, sometimes just for fun. While he was undeniably brilliant, he also was a bit like a bumbling, absent-minded mad scientist. Half the time the computers he'd take apart would never work again, and he'd spend many hours working to solve complex networking issues only to have Ricardo walk in and discover he'd forgotten to turn on the wireless button.

My maternal grandfather was this way with vehicles; he had a garage full of cars and assorted machines that he'd tinkered with and would only function - with a bit of luck - for him.

So, this two-part exclamation would be used as follows:

"My laptop has been having problems lately, I think something is wrong with the hard drive. I gave it to André to have a look."


Rico and I throw this one around all the time in our conversations, a unique reminder of our time spent in Chimoio. I'm sure people must think we are crazy, but it's become one of those expressions that perfectly captures what is sometimes inexpressable with words.


Lindsey said...

As often as I heard those at work & on the chapa, you'd think I would have taken them home with me. Thanks for a good laugh!

The Girl from Mozambique said...

:-) Sim claro.

Jo Ann v. said...

So funny, we have the same in Angola ! The "iiiiiiiiiih" is sometimes emphasized with the "ewééééééééééééé" :-D