I know greetings and praise in Amharic, and Ethiopians are pretty easy to recognize facially. Yesterday at lunch, I overheard language intonation that I recognized as being close to Arabic, but when I turned around and looked at the 2 men, they looked African, not East of the Arab region, which I’d pictured in my ‘mental map of language recognition.’
Cutting to the chase, I went over and said, “Hi, what language are you speaking?” (It was a Carl’s Jr. and I’d finished my jalapeño burger, & friendliness is not prohibited on the premises.)
They’re from Eritrea, seceded from Northern Ethiopia, which has 2 ports on the Red Sea. I had Eritrean and Ethiopian friends back at Bethel College when I was 18 years old, and visited Ethiopia for a week the year I did my Master’s research in Turkana. They were very friendly, but I wouldn’t give them my ‘address’ (I explained I’m a teacher, and they completely understood wanting home privacy).
They explained that Tigrinya as a language is close to Hebrew (same family as Amharic and Arabic), and were eager to explain that Jews went there in history. Their energy of expression and intonation were very Arabic-sounding, but not the sounds of consonants and vowels, and I didn’t recognize words.
I really love Africans, and am sorry when people express prejudice or fear about them. That’s why I walked out of Captain Phillips (the way the Somalis were portrayed as so evil); but for weeks now, I’ve been curious how the story progressed and ended, so maybe I’ll go back and just shut my eyes at the beginning parts. The way they showed the Somali village with huts and goats, and all the people crowding for jobs, was EXACTLY the look and feel of Turkana where I worked, and it was just too viscerally scary when they started being violent in the boat. I can now watch Bourne movies without feeling they’re beating up on my brother (whom Matt Damon looks like), but seeing Somalia and Tom Hanks at threat on board were just too real and alarming.
I really like the way most Africans are open-hearted in expression, if you are open-hearted with them. It’s not a pretense: it’s their norm.