Stringing words together


Though no longer an expat, at least not in Mayotte, I still get email alerts of new threads on the expat blog’s Mayotte forum. (Actually, Mayotte being French, ‘expat’ is something of a misnomer, but to go into that more deeply gets a bit complicated). The latest thread asked, Is it indispensable to speak Shimaoré to be fully integrated in Mayotte?

Christine, who posted the question, obviously likes to stir the occasional can of worms. In fact the forum is always a good place to go for a juicy ding-dong. Cavalier answered ‘Absolutely! All these mzungus who’ve been here three or four years and can’t string two words together –  🤔’

To which Cigsol replied, ‘Why don’t we ask the opposite? Since they voted to be French, couldn’t we have a little hope that they might one day speak our language? Didn’t they know what they were voting for? Father Christmas perhaps? Santa would come along with a suitcase stuffed with 500 euros banknotes and hand them out all round. (I’m not kidding!! My landlord’s family couldn’t wait!!) They can’t even ask a question properly – the meaning of please has escaped them.’

Zeitoun then weighed in with, ‘Knowing shimaoré won’t get you far, except in understanding the unpleasant remarks they make about you in public – better by far to convert to Islam.’ Before veering somewhat off-topic to bemoan them ‘looking down their nose at you from the bling-bling of their SUV.’

In France, as elsewhere, the issue of language is intimately linked to the question of national identity, and has long been contentious. Article 2 of the Constitution states unequivocally, ‘The language of the Republic is French,’ a position which hasn’t varied since other languages were first perceived as a threat in the 19th Century. At that time, it was common practice for children who lapsed into Occitan or Breton at school to be forced to wear a clog round their necks, which they would then pass on to any child they heard doing the same. The child wearing the clog at the end of the day was punished.

How effectively ‘clogging’ was in killing off regional languages remains open to debate, but the number of Breton speakers has gone from over 2 million in 1864 to 250 000 today. Many other factors were involved, including greater mobility and the speakers’ own perception of their language as a hindrance to development. You can still buy wooden clogs in France, but they mostly go onto feet these days rather than children’s necks. Nonetheless, according to one recent measure of the natural transmission of language (i.e. at home rather than at school), Breton, Occitan and Provençal have shrunk by 90% in a single generation.

Although the position now is to save rather than kill regional languages, it may be a case of too little, too late. In 1972, President Pompidou was quite happy to declare: ‘There is no room for regional languages in a France whose fate is to mark Europe with its seal.’ And France has still to ratify the 1992 European Charter for Regional and Minority languages, which is deemed incompatible with article 2 of the constitution.

The charter only applies to European languages, so in that respect Shimaoré isn’t concerned. But it is a regional language as regards the education system, and it’s been pointed out that since there’s a baccalauréat option for Creole, Tahitian and Melanesian, there should be one too for Shimaoré. This could take a while. For a start, Shimaoré was until recently an oral language only, and there’s no consensus on how it should be transcribed. More importantly, it would need to be studied at school (at least in Mayotte), but current practice is to teach exclusively in French.

I didn’t contribute to Christine’s thread, but as a matter of course, I take an interest an interest in the language of any country I visit. In the case of Shimaoré, this extended to taking weekly lessons. I can’t claim to speak it, I’m afraid, but one thing I did learn was the Shakasha. Ahem…

February, 2015:

So off I went to the Boboka Primary School for my weekly Shimaoré class, thinking it would be the usual: a whirlwind of words held together by fiendish bits of grammar invented for the sole purpose of confusing me. But instead, our teacher, Gaucher – his nickname, French for left-handed, because he’s, well, left-handed – wrote the lyrics to Shakasha on the board.

Shakasha biyaya na shigoma, Ngoma zatru za zamani

Yilalihwa Mirereni ya Sufu Ali, Karibu na Malamani etc

Shakasha is a dance. So once he’d got us all singing the song, Gaucher took us out to the balcony and taught us how to do it. (i) Four steps forward, starting with left foot, (ii) Raise right foot, clap, (iii) Three steps back, clap. There you go – simple, isn’t it? Now you know the Shakasha.

As my wife will tell you, having been subjected many times to my valiant, eager, but ultimately sad attempts at le rock’n’roll, I am the world’s worst dancer. But even I could manage the Shakasha. Or so I thought.

Because then it got trickier. You go round in a circle doing the forward – back – clap bit, and two people, alternately spaced, break out of the circle to do the steps in the middle. Then, as they’re going back to their places, the next two do likewise. So everyone does it twice, once with a partner two places to the left, once with a partner two places to the right, with just enough time in between for the intervening couple to have their go.

The result, obviously, was a mess. A sort of Blind Man’s Buff with everyone wearing a blindfold. But Gaucher was very patient, and after an hour of this, we were drenched in sweat but had just about got the hang of it. Then came the announcement: ‘You’ll be performing this in the Baobab Stadium for National Language Day.’

Cue guffaws of incredulity all round. But no, I kid you not. Just two weeks to rehearse. The song, apparently, is an exhortation to preserve Mahorais traditions. I don’t know if Gaucher realises yet that what was once a beautiful dance will henceforth be known as The Shakasha Shambles.

This post is for Phoebe’s All About France link up, which is two years old this month – many happy returns!

Lou Messugo
Posted in France, Mayotte and tagged , , , , , , , , .


  1. Would love to see this dance, Curtis. My husband and I have been talking for a few years about a couples dancing class so we both can be more conversant, for when we’re invited to Mar-a-Lago (HA!). When I was in graduate school, there was a linguistics prof at university who was working to preserve Native American languages; there are so many dialects and subdialects there and many are already lost. So, as a former linguistics student, I found your discussions about Shimaoré, Breton, and Occitan fascinating! Part of our family is living in China and we are trying our best to learn some Mandarin in case we get to visit; I’m more familiar with Cantonese, but, either way, it’s so tough to do as an adult unless you are truly immersed in it, from meals to school to home and everything.

    • Linguistics was also my field of study so I share your love of languages. Unfortunately, my attempts at learning them haven’t exactly been covered in glory. Good luck with the Mandarin!

      • Yeah, Curtis, there’s a part of me that wishes I’d done more in linguistics. I only got a minor; and I was not good at the phonological stuff. I always saw myself being involved with etymology. Anyway, cheers. (And keep on dancing!)

  2. This had me captivated and chuckling all the way through. You see I can really identify with your problem, three left feet and absolutely no sense of rhythm. I think it must be a Welsh thing Curtis; we can sing, but no way can we dance!

  3. What do you mean you’re no longer an expat in Mayotte???? Have you moved back to la Metropole? I can just imagine the administrative nightmare of getting an oral language onto the French school curriculum….not for the faint hearted! And I’d have loved to have seen the performance of The Shakasha Shambles. Thanks for the birthday wishes, it’s been great having you link up to #AllAboutFrance over the past 2 years.

    • Language is always a sensitive issue, even divisive – one only has to look at Belgium. But you’re quite right that accepting other languages is not just a question of tolerance and respect towards others but enriching for oneself.

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