How complicated could it really be?
You have NO idea!!!
Over the past few years I have listened to countless conversations in Macua, the local African language. I only know about 30 words in Macua and I get really excited whenever I am able to pick them out of a conversation. I can also recognize any Portuguese words that people use when there is no Macua equivalent, and I have noticed on numerous occasions that people always use Portuguese when they say numbers. Whenever I hear this I ask the people if they know how to count in Macua and this usually results in some arguing and confusion. Obviously people here counted before the Portuguese arrived but for some reason Macua numbers have been replaced by Portuguese numbers even for those who don’t speak Portuguese. I have always wondered why this was and planned to some day investigate it.
For Yohani’s birthday my mom sent him a really great book that teaches kids how to count in Swahili. As I started reading the book to Yohani I decided that if we (Yohani and I) are going to learn to count in Swahili, we should also learn to count in Macua (since Yohani IS Macua). I got my pen and paper and went over to where a group of kids, some neighbors, and our cook (who is a grandma and mainly only speaks Macua) were sitting near the cooking house. “Can you teach me how to count in Macua?” Again – big confusion, lots of discussion and arguing - nobody knows for sure. Finally everyone agrees to agree with whatever the grandma cook says. I write down the numbers. And then later I even find a website that claims to teach how to count to ten in every language in the world. I compare the 1-10 I got from the grandma cook, kids, and neighbors with the 1-10 on the website. They’re close enough. I feel that I have the right numbers and can now memorize them with confidence.
And the fascinating thing about the Macua (and some other Bantu) number system is that it is 5 based instead of 10 based. (This means it starts over after 5 instead of starting over after 10.) VERY interesting to me.
Counting from 1 – 10 in Macua (or so I though) . . .
6. tânu ná mózà
7. tânu ná píli
8. tânu ná tháru
9. tânu ná xéxè
After seeing the whole base 5 number system thing I thought I knew why people must have switched to Portuguese numbers. If you’re counting by 5s instead of 10s, numbers are going to get really long and complicated really fast and it will be more confusing to talk about larger numbers.
Meanwhile . . . I had been searching for a Macua dictionary or grammar book for a long time now and I recently finally found one being sold on the street (Método Macua by Gino Centis). I bought the book and then excitedly looked through it. Sadly, I was immediately completely overwhelmed with the complexity of the language. Macua is REALLY complicated.
After a while I thought to myself that I would just find the page with the numbers 1-10 to confirm that at least I know ONE thing in Macua that is simple and straightforward (to encourage myself). Well . . . when I got to the page with the numbers I was in for a surprise. It turns out there is no simple “one, two, three” (or “emoza, pili, tharu”) in Macua. Instead there are four different ways to say every single number. There is one set of numbers for counting “atthu” (people), another set of numbers for counting “mahiku” (?), a third set for counting “itthu” (?), and a fourth for counting “miyeri” (?)!
There are four different ways to say EVERY SINGLE number!!! For example – if you want to say the number 2 – and you’re talking about 2 people, then you say “anli.” But if you’re talking about mavaka then you use the word “manli,” if you’re talking about itthu you use the word “pili,” and if you’re talking about mirima then you use the word “mili”!!! No wonder nobody can agree on how to simply count and no wonder people have just switched over to Portuguese!
As soon as I saw what was going on here I became so discouraged that I just decided to give up on the entire Macua language. I am already SO bad at learning other languages – simple counting being SO complex was the last straw for me.
Later that week I told Erica and Jonas about my “discovery” about Macua numbers and I showed them the page with the sets of numbers. Jonas looked at the page and started laughing and told us that one of the number sets was just for counting spears and another was for counting pots. Erica and I thought this was really funny and it actually kind of encouraged me to give the whole thing another try. I mean, how intriguing that there would be a whole set of numbers JUST for counting spears!!!
So in case anyone reading this actually cares . . . here is how you count in Macua (I think) . . .
If you are counting people:
6. athanu na mosa
7. athanu nànli
8. athanu n’aràru
9. athanu n’axexe
If you are counting spears:
6. mathanu na mosa
7. mathanu na mànli
8. mathanu na mararu
9. mathanu na maxexe
If you are counting things (like pots):
6. thanu na mosa
7. thanu na pìli
8. thanu na tthàru
9. thanu na xexe
And finally, if you are counting hearts, souls, consciences, lives, loves, understandings, and other things like that:
6. mithanu na mosa
7. mithanu na mìli
8. mithanu na miraru
9. mithanu na mixexe
Macua’s pretty deep.