Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Añe’e michimi guaranime (I speak a little of your god damn language.)

Recently in the New York Times there was an article about Paraguay’s indigenous language Guarani.

There are many indigenous languages still spoken in the America’s but usually each language is spoken by a small portion of a country’s population.  Lots of people speak an indigenous language in Bolivia, just not all the same one. In Paraguay, Guarani is spoken by almost everyone.
I can guarantee you those guys speak Guarani
I’ve mentioned this language in passing before, but seeing as I don’t speak it, I try not to be an expert on the subject. Guarani is a topic I have very mixed feeling about. I love it. I love that Paraguay is so proud of their indigenous language, and that there are increasing efforts to keep it alive and relevant. However, I think only Guarani itself might have sufficient vulgarities for how much I hate it.

It’s a treacherous bitch, this Guarani business. Essentially every word has two meanings and the second one is ALWAYS uncouth, and therefore hilarious. My first encounter with the wily Guarani was my second week in Paraguay. A Paraguayan guy pointed to the tattoo on my ankle, and asked how many I had. At the time I wasn’t sure of the Spanish word for tattoo, so I responded, “Yo tengo tres tattoo.” It was the best I could do, and figured tattoo had to be a cognate anyways. An eruption of laughter followed. Hmm...Clearly, I said something wrong.

The Paraguayan just starts screaming through his laughter “Tatuaje, Tauaje. Tenes tres tatuaje.”
Ok, now I know the word for tattoo in Spanish, but what the fuck did I say?

Carved "Tatu"

A couple days pass, and since being laughed at grew increasingly common I almost had forgotten about the incident. Then walking past a crafts stand I saw little wood carved Armadillos. Being from Texas, I had to point it out and ask it’s name. “Tatu,” replies my friend. (Pronounced “tattoo.”)

Things are becoming clearer. I had told a group of Paraguayans that I had three armadillos. Except, that doesn’t sound very funny.

Further into training, I’m starting to get a handle on Spanish and am able to have something resembling conversations with my host family. One of the sisters decides to teach me bad words in guarani, a critical cultural lesson. I don’t really remember any of them, because we spent damn near half an hour just covering the words for dick. (All you need to know is DO NOT confuse, tembiu with tembo’i.)

Once we get through all the pseudonyms for male genitalia we move onto female. It was a much shorter lesson, but the opening word caught my attention: “Tatu.”


I start sweating. Weeks of postponed embarrassment come rushing over me. I now understand why my three pet armadillos were so damn hysterical. I had proudly, and loudly admitted to being a lady thrice over in the middle dinner. PALM meet FACE.

I still recall that incident with horror, but consider it to be exemplary of both humor in Paraguay, and the mischievous character of Guarani. In Guarani, the dirtier the joke the better, and the double entendre is the preferred method. “They’re bellybuttons touched”, “She didn’t eat last night”, and “She really likes mandioca,” are all phrases that are not what they seem when uttered in Guarani.

So like I said, I can appreciate Guarani and what it means to Paraguayan culture, but if I could punch a language in the face, it might be Guarani.

 I am gonna keep trying to hobble together a couple words now and then, but don't think I could really ever get a handle on it. I give major kudos to all the volunteers who speak Guarani and use it as their primary language. You are a better person than I.