Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, October 10

Non-Verbal Language

The following are my observations of non-verbal noises or gestures that have semi-discernable meanings. These meanings are in no way set in stone, nor were they explained to me. I have had to figure them out on my own over the course of my time here. They are however pretty standard, at least for my family, if not all of Mboro and possibly Senegal.

1. One cluck. Cluck may not be the best word for this, as the resulting noise sounds more like the one made to get a horse to start moving: that sort of big toothed smile cluck using the air pocket in the side of a cheek. Except they seem to have mastered a closed mouth version of this, and admittedly it does take some practice. Its meaning is agreement, acknowledgment of a task doled out, or a general “I hear you.” There is an optional one time vertical head jerk to add emphasis, if you choose.

2. Rapid fire double cluck. Similar to the above but doubled in very quick succession, this noise means not only do I agree, but you are exactly right. You have hit the nail on the head, as they say, and there may or may not be a need for me to speak afterwards to confirm what you’ve said.

3. Slow double cluck with head shake. Similar clucking noise but done in a Southern drawl and sort of way perfectly in time with a side-to-side head shake that says “no.” And this is precisely what it means. It’s for the boldest of the Senegalese population with the gumption to say “no” in a culture where you just don’t do so.

4. Wetted lips smirk. This is accomplished by altering a closed lip quick smile to allow air to pass between your lips. The result is something resembling that noise when the dentist sucks the remaining rinse water from your mouth with that awkward tube. Its meaning is that the maker of the noise is lacking agreement with what you have said. A person gets around their inability to say “no” with the wetted lips smirk noise. Even then, I feel its meaning isn’t “no” or “I don’t agree”…but something more passive like “I lack agreement.” For a stronger response refer to the slow double cluck with head shake option.

5. Hissing. Is there a snake chasing after you? No, that’s just someone hissing in an attempt to get your attention. It has no meaning other than “I want to talk to you but don’t have a) your name and b) enough manners to formulate words.”

6. Oh, oh. This doesn’t count as a word in my mind, no matter how many times you repeat it in rapid succession nor how loud you become. The meaning is exactly the same as the hissing- and it’s hard for me to decide which is more annoying.

7. Quick hiss. This is very short 2 second version of above described attention-getting hiss. Very similar to an American psst, and is used to hail cabs.

8. Outstretched arm/ finger wave. Accomplished by stretching the arm out to a 90 degree angle from the body and pointing only your index finger towards the ground. Then make a flicking motion in the wrist to jerk you hand up and down, thus moving the index finger in a way that looks as though you’re pointing to the ground. Also used to hail cabs, but more useful for signaling one from farther distances on main roads where they would need time to slow down for you.

9. Hand flick. This is accomplished by holding a hand up, palm facing out, and quickly turning it around palm facing into the body- in a fluid swirl/ flip like motion. It is used in the place of someone saying “what the hell are you thinking?” Quite often the gesture is repeated in rapid succession to convey increased levels of anger. The more it’s done the more ‘in the wrong’ the receiver.

10. Low double hand flick. This is when both hands are incorporated into a flicking motion that starts palm down, hands close to the body, and ends with palms up and arms stretched out… though not too far. Anyway, it’s a much more casual hand flick with an accompanying message of simply “what?” It’s used to convey mere confusion on behalf of the flicker, instead of a belief of wrong doing, and to then ask for clarification. It is sometimes repeated for the sort of “what” that accompanies disbelief.

11. Finger tickle. The giver uses his index or middle finger to tickle the palm of the receiver during a hand shake. As handshakes are quite frequent around town, between best friends and complete strangers alike, one must always be on the lookout for sneak attacks. Perhaps it is more commonly referred to as ‘sexy finger’ because of its hidden nature and implied intent: I want to have sex with you.

12. Hand shake/ forehead touch. This accomplished by bowing your head slightly and touching the backside of a friend’s hand to your forehead whilst holding said hand in a handshake manner. They are obligated to return this gesture, and then you both repeat it 2 to 4 more times. The significance is that you are very close friends coming from the same brotherhood (like a religious fraternity) of Islam. It is typically only done between men of one brotherhood… but I forget which one.

There was a brief time period between telling everyone in my life I was going to Africa and my actual departure. In this time, the most common joke heard was impending task of learning the language of clucks. I’m ok with admitting that I judged all of these jokesters as condescending ignorant Americans. Clucks seemed just a bit too tribal to me, and we’re talking about a developing country- not a tribal one. Surely any language I’d learn would be a compilation of noises born with vocal cords and not rapid tongue movements. However, as the above proves, I wasn’t entirely correct. It may not be a whole language worth, but I’m willing to admit my own mistake in assuming any culture to be completely devoid of non-verbal messages. After all, what would my own American life be like without the ability to flick a middle finger at every driver that cuts me off? Substitute the hissing with a solid construction worker whistle and it’s like I never even left!

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