Friday, October 22, 2010

More Kiswahili than you ever wanted to know

Fact: In Kiswahili, the word “yeye” (pronounced yay-yay) means both “he” and “she,” rendering it impossible to determine the gender of the person about whom you are speaking. And yet the language has 27 different demonstratives to mean “this” or “that.”

I sometimes wonder if some of the grammar rules of Kiswahili were invented just to confuse me, yet I still love the language. Here’s why:

Kiswahili (literally “the language of the Swahili people”) belongs to the Bantu family of languages indigenous to East and Central Africa, and is currently spoken by about 90 million people in Tanzania (including Zanzibar), Kenya, Uganda, northern Mozambique, and some parts of Somalia, DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi. (It’s the national language of Kenya and Tanzania and one of several official languages in Uganda.) Though the language has very African roots, modern-day Kiswahili has been largely influenced by the frequent movement of people throughout the region, by spice and slave traders traveling the coast of East Africa, by indigenous African languages of different dialects, and by colonialism. Today, about 25% of Kiswahili words are of Arabic origin, and there are quite a few recognizably Portuguese, Hindi, German, and English words in the mix, too.

Kiswahili is an “agglutinative” language, meaning that one word (a group of letters between two spaces) is made up of several different parts that take on a certain meaning when put together, kind of like a compound word. Take, for example, the following sentence (pronounce EVERY letter, including vowels, phonetically):

Ninampiga. (pronounced: nee-nah-m-PEE -guh)

This one word, which translates as “I am hitting him” or “I am hitting her,” is a complete sentence that can be broken down into the following parts:


Ni = I (subject)
na = am (present tense marker)
m = him/her (object)
piga = hit (verb)

Seems easy enough, right?

But then come the Noun Classes. In Kiswahili, every noun (person, place, thing, or idea) is assigned to a Noun Class, and each of the 7 Noun Classes comes with its own set of prefixes, pronouns, and complicated rules. For example:

Kitabu hiki ni kikubwa. (This book is large.)

Kitabu = book
hiki = this
ni = is
kikubwa = big/large

Because the noun “kitabu” (which is the subject of the sentence) starts with “ki-,” every subsequent noun or verb has to start with the prefix “ki-“ to make it agree with the subject. So if the subject (noun) changes, EVERYTHING changes. For example:

Kitabu hiki ni kikubwa. (This book is large.)
Vitabu hivi ni vikubwa. (These books are large.)


Vioo vimeharibika. (The mirror is broken.)
Kikombe kimeharibika. (The cup is broken.)
Mkono umeharibika. (The arm is broken.)
Gari limeharibika. (The car is broken.)

Basically, the word “broken” can be written any of the 12 following ways: ameharibika, wameharibika, umeharibika, imeharibika, limeharibika, yameharibika, kimeharibika, vimeharibika, zimeharibika, pameharibika, kumeharibika, or mumeharibika. Oh yes, there’s 12 different ways to say “broken” depending on what noun you’re saying is broken…and that’s just in the present tense.

And then there’re the verbs, which change depending on how they’re being used. There’s a reciprocal formation (“they are hitting each other”), a causative formation (“he caused her to hit him”), a stative formation (“he is being hit”), a prepositional formation (“he hit her with…”), etc., and with each formation the verb itself changes with suffixes. And there’s different rules for verbs that are “pure Swahili” and those which are derived from Arabic and those which are derived from English, for verbs with double vowels, for those with an initial vowel of “u,” etc.

Suffice it to say that it’s a complicated language. But there are rules to explain nearly everything, and there are only a handful of exceptions to the rules so it’s easy enough to remember them. And, for the most part, once you get the hang of it the language makes sense.

Another super complicated concept that actually makes sense is that of Swahili Time. The Swahili are, traditionally, an agricultural people whose day begins at sunrise. Since we’re right around the equator, sunrise happens around 6:00am every morning. So doesn’t it make sense that TIME (the counting of the hours) would start then, too? Thus, “saa moja” (hour one) is what WE Westerners would call 7:00am. “Saa mbili” (hour two) is our 8:00am. And so on. Noon “English” time is “hour six” Swahili time, as is English midnight. It’s not so difficult once you get used to automatically adding and subtracting 6 hours to whatever time people tell you or what you see on your watch. And, honestly, does it really make sense that the rest of the world starts the new day in the middle of the night?

Another sort of linguistic-cultural difference between English and Kiswahili that I really appreciate is the vocabulary used to describe family. While, in English, we have aunts, uncles, cousins, step-parents, half-siblings, etc., in Kiswahili this all changes. The sisters of your mother (maternal aunts)are ALSO called your mother, and you distinguish between “mothers” by stating their place in the birth order. Thus a person who would be called your “aunt” in English is either your “big mother” or “small mother” depending on if she’s older or younger than your biological mother. In the same way, paternal uncles are “big father” and “small father.” And, because you have lots of mothers and fathers, all of their children (which we would call “cousins” in English) are your brothers and sisters. “Cousins” are only the children of your maternal uncle or paternal aunt. And the word “ndugu” describes ANY family relation, whether it be your niece or your step-half-great-aunt. Family is family, and I like that.

(I also really appreciate the fact that Justine is a relatively common name in East Africa so nobody says “oh, like Justin Timberlake” when I introduce myself, and everybody knows how to spell it and pronounce it properly. Amos, my last name, is also a common first name here, so my name is easier in East Africa than it’s ever been in my life! It’s kind of nice. Strange, though, to hear people call my name when they’re not talking to me…that’s never happened to me before.)

So, now that you know more than you ever wanted to know about Kiswahili, here are some marginally useful phrases for you. Try to read them (aloud is easier) pronouncing every consonant phonetically. The emphasis in every word is on the penultimate (second to last) syllable, and vowels are pronounced like this:

A= “ah”
E= “ay”
I= “ee”
O= “oh”
U= “oo”

Jina langu ni Justine. (JEE-nuh LAWN-goo ni Justine: My name is Justine.)
Ninatoka Marekani. (ni-naw-TOE-kuh mah-ray-KAW-nee: I come from America.)
Mimi ni mwanafunzi. (MEE-mee ni mwah-nah-FOON-zee: I am a student.)
Habari yako? (huh-BAR-ee YAH-koh: How are you?)
Nzuri sana. (in-ZOO-ree SAW-nuh: I’m fine.)
Asante sana. (uh-SAWN-tay SAW-nuh: Thank you very much.)
Sasa nimechoka kujifunza kuhusu Kiswahili. (I’m tired of learning about Kiswahili now.)

Because I’m sure you are. Pole sana. (POE-lay SAW-nuh: I’m very sorry.)

Anyway, that’s a basic introduction to what I spend at least 4 hours every day speaking and writing and reading and otherwise studying. I’m halfway through the intermediate level course now and I’m finding I can understand enough of what people say to me to convincingly fake a full understanding of the language, which is really all you ever need.

I’ll write more about the goings on in Iringa slash my life in another Blog, to be posed sometime this weekend. For now, though, I’ve got 2 hours and 14 minutes of battery on my computer and I’m going to watch 2 hours and 13 minutes of the TV show Scrubs from my external hard drive. Afterwards, I’ll write a short summary of each episode in Kiswahili so I can count the whole 2 hours and 13 minutes as productive homework time. I have the kind of master procrastination skills that can only come from years of experience.

Halafu, sasa hivi… (huh-LAW-foo SAW-suh HEE-vee: So, for now…)

Baadaye! (buh-DYE-ay: Later!)

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