Hi @coleman! I have a question… I understand ‘ma’ as didn’t. So I often get confused when saying “N m’a dɔn” and “N m’a faamu”.
Sometimes I’m confused switching between “N m’a dɔn” and “N t’a dɔn” to say I don’t know instead of I didn’t know. The same type of thing with “N m’a faamu”.
How should I be saying I don’t vs. I didn’t?
I think that what you are struggling with is the fact that Bambara sometimes uses a past/perfective form where English would use the present. This is notably the case with the verbs k’à dɔn (‘to know something’) and k’à faamu (‘to understand something’), which you point out
In English, if someone asks use a question like “What’s the third largest city in Mali?”, we respond in the present tense “I don’t know”. In Bambara, however, it’s normal to respond with the past/perfect form (and a direct object [the third-person pronoun à ‘it’] because the verb cannot be used properly without one).
Here’s an example with a very literal translation:
– Mali ka dugu sabanan ye jumɛn ye?
– N ma à dɔn (→ N m’à dɔn)
– Mali’s third city is which (one)? (as in, “What is Mali’s third [largest] city?”)
– I haven’t known it (as in, “I don’t know”)
This also the case for k’à faamu. For instance, if someone spoke to you, but you didn’t understand them:
– Christy, i bɛ bɔ min?
– Hakɛto! N ma à faamu! (→ N m’à faamu)
– Christy, where are you from? (lit. ‘where you do exit from?’)
– Sorry! I haven’t understood it! (as in, “I don’t understand [what you are saying]”)
(For this example sentence, it could also kind of make sense for an English speaker if we translated it as “I didn’t understand it”.)
All of that to say:
- In general, yes, ma is the negative past/perfective so it generally lines up with "didn’t or “haven’t”
- But there isn’t one way of saying “don’t” vs “didn’t” in Bambara; in some cases, you need to respect the fact that Bambara can or does use the past where English uses the present (e.g., with k’à dɔn and k’à faamu when expressing “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand [what you said OR what just occurred]”, etc.)