I’m not a natural whiz with language, never have been. I always feel slightly embarrassed and awkward when speaking anything other than English. I blame my parents. Or perhaps my monolingual-loving culture. Either way, learning languages, and especially the verbal aspect of it all, is challenging to me.
Which brings me to the point of this particular diatribe: the words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Usually these are two words you grasp early when learning a language – the ones you use constantly, and fall back on when you’re not quite sure what’s going on. In this respect the Finnish language is my kryptonite, as the words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Finnish are impossible for me. The word for ‘yes’ in Finnish is ‘joo’ (pronounced: yo, as in ‘yo, what’s up?’), and ‘no’ is ‘ei’ (like ‘hey’ without the ‘h’). My issues are not with pronunciation. For me, it’s a re-purposing problem.
My issue with ‘yo’ should be obvious, because I’m hip. ‘Yo’ is in my core vocabulary – the stuff I use everyday. Re-purposing one of my favorite words in English is hard! The ‘ei’ is probably less obvious, but is actually a much bigger problem for me, because it just so happens that ‘ei’ means yes in Hausa. And in case you didn’t know, I learned Hausa by spending my days surrounded by mothers and young children, which means that simple commands you’d use with toddlers are my forte, and pretty ingrained. So, I’m constantly saying ‘ei’ when I mean ‘yes’, but all these Finnish people are hearing ‘no’. This seemingly simple miscommunication has led to some interesting problems, not all of them pleasant or easy to get out of.
It’s also really frustrating, because what are the chances that the two languages I learn have the same core word, but with opposite meanings? Really?!? It would be comical if it didn’t feel so frustrating. It actually brings to mind my favorite part of the movie-musical Singing in the Rain, where they’re doing the premiere of the ‘talkie’ movie, and the sound and picture become unsynchronized, so the audio is saying ‘yes, yes, yes’ as the woman violently shakes her head, and then you hear ‘no, no, no’ when the man wildly nods. I feel like that. I’ll nod and say ‘ei’, effectively signaling both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ response, respectively. These Finns must think I’m deranged.