The Inuit and Aleut people of the Artic region in the far north, are well known for having numerous words for snow, although the exact number is debated. Part of the reason is there are not singular Inuit and Aleut languages. Plus, in those languages, there are many dialects. Nonetheless, there are plentiful ways to describe snow in their cultures. For example, “aqilokoq” is snow that falls softly; “muruaneq” is deep snow that is soft; and “pukak,” is salt-like, crystallized snowflakes.
So this is what happened the other night. There we all were at the dinner table: Mama, Tata, and my big sister Nomfundo, who is nothing but a two-faced goody-goody if you ask me (and since this is my story, let me assure you, she is.) And there I was, trying to be a decent son, and make polite conversation, when an English word just popped out.
Nomfundo smirked, all sly like. That smirk that lets me know she’s feeling good that I’m about to get it, but all hidden from Mama and Tata, so she continues her fake-angelic act.
Tata, meanwhile, slowly put his cutlery down. There we were, the smell of Mama’s roasted chicken making my mouth water, and knowing taking another bite in that moment would only make things worse.
“Tell me, son, what do you know of Malcom X?”
I blinked in surprise, uncertain if I should answer. Maybe Tata was trying to catch me out. I once got really interested in the US civil rights movement. But all my curiosity did was send Tata into a rant about how South African youth are always focused more on Western history than the past that runs through their veins.
“Mavi, are your ears working?”
“Then, do you know who Malcom X is, or not?”
Tata sat back and sighed, long and low. That was the sigh everybody knew, even the people who worked for him. This meant Tata was getting ready to preach history. Languages and history are his thing, so much so, that everyone – from his employees, to our neighbours, to the people at the church – calls him “Professor”.
Mama set her cutlery down, too. My stomach sank. This meant Mama was anticipating a long lesson.
“Malcom X was a thinker,” Tata began, and proceeded to talk for a good 10 minutes. At last he wound it down with, “He cared about the details, and what those details meant. He never wasted time. So you see, my son, I have decided that if you are going to insist on speaking English as if it is your home language, then you will educate yourself about English, like Malcom X did.”
A little wire in the back of my brain began to vibrate, like it was trying to tell me something. Then it hit me. “Tata, no, please, I don’t have time to write out every word in the English dictionary.”
Tata looked at Mama. She shrugged. “Jail did provide him with the time to address this matter.”
“Okay, my son, I hear you and your mother. Perhaps writing out every word in the English dictionary, like Malcolm X did, is too large a project while you have your studies and sports. I will agree to a compromise.”
He got up from the table and went into the other room, where his bookshelves lined the walls, and more books were piled high on top of the television cabinet. As he busied himself in there, Nomfundo gave a snort and began to dig into her meal.
I, however, waited for my doom.
Tata returned, setting a book down by my elbow. I glanced at it. The title read, The Word Graveyard: a collection of English words that are nearly forgotten.
“This book,” he said, tapping its cover. “You will read this book. Every day you will select five words from it and accurately work them into conversations you have during the day. Every evening you will report to me which words you used, and their definitions. Are you clear?”
“But Tata,” I protested, “everybody will make fun of me if I start throwing words around that nobody understands.”
Nomfundo started to say something, but Mama quieted her with a touch to the hand.
“Think of it as an opportunity,” Tata said, “to expand your own mind as well as those around you.”
With a sigh, I opened the book at a random page. The first word I spotted was ‘uglyography’, which was defined as being, “handwriting that is poor, or considered ugly.”
“I will never live this down,” I muttered.
Nomfundo burst into peals of laughter, leaving me hoping she’d wake up to a face full of pimples in the morning.
Tell us: If you were Mavi, how would you handle being told you had to use unusual words in your daily conversation with your friends?