20 July 2010

fun (?) with swahili

Warning: this is going to be one of the dorkiest blog entries that I write all summer, so if you don't fancy hearing my armchair linguistical musings, you have my full permission to skip this one. Now, for whoever's left, on with the dorkfest!

The Lion King. Now’s as good a time as any to share that many of the African-sounding words in Disney’s The Lion King come from Swahili. A few of the characters’ names are Swahili words, including Simba (lion), Rafiki (friend), and Pumbaa (the root of a verb meaning “to be foolish”). Hakuna Matata is a real Swahili phrase, and it means something pretty close to “no worries,” though most Swahili speakers seem to prefer the equivalent expression hamna shida. Word about the movie has apparently gotten out among the street peddlers in Zanzibar, because hakuna matata usually one of the first things they trot out to tourists. The movie is not consistent throughout, though. While studying Swahili back in the States, I was a bit disappointed to learn that the opening call and chant in “The Circle of Life” is not in Swahili—it’s Zulu.

Onomatopoeia. One of my favorite Swahili words is pikipiki (motorcycle) and I loved it even more when I learned of its onomatopoeic origins. Apparently pikipiki is an imitation of the sound that old-school motorcycles used to make when people revved up the engine. Similarly, the village of Bububu on Zanzibar draws its name from the sound of old steam locomotives on the island’s first railway. Some Swahili words of older vintage that I suspect of being onomatopoeic are mbwa (dog), chafya (sneeze), and miayo (yawn).

Loanwords. Like many languages, Swahili is loaded with words from other languages. The big sources of loanwords that I’m aware of are (in decreasing order of importance) Arabic, English, and Portuguese. But as tends to happen with loanwords, many have gotten mangled to suit local pronunciation, with frequently charming results. This happens because while we’re all born with a lot of linguistic flexibility, our ability to form certain types of sounds atrophies quickly in childhood if those sounds aren’t present in our native tongue. This is why so many Filipinos struggle with the “f” sound, why many native Spanish speakers have to throw in a vowel before an English word beginning with “s,” and why it’s so difficult for many English speakers to master the rolled r’s and guttural sounds in other languages.

Swahili speakers really don’t enjoy ending words with consonants, so most English loanwords have an extra vowel—most frequently “i”—tacked onto the end. Therefore, a taxi driver will give you a lifti to your destination, and if you pay with a large bill you’ll collect your chenji. While traveling you will surely stay at a hoteli, but hopefully you’ll avoid the hospitali and the kituo cha polisi (police station). I and many of the Americans I know have started using some of these words even in conversation with each other, and it’s a running joke that if you’re at a loss for a Swahili word, adding “i” to an English word is a reasonable guess. I even hear lots of Tanzanians throwing in some extra i’s when speaking English—the word “just” seems to be tricky because it frequently becomes “justi.” Sometimes the letter “u” serves this function as well: you can call your friends on a simu (from SIM card) and indulge in some cold aiskrimu. Occasionally, Swahili goes the other way and deletes a final consonant; “r” is a frequent victim, giving the language a Bostonian touch whenever one plays soka or enlists the services of a dereva (driver).

Placenames. I always enjoy learning placenames in a new language because I think it provides some clues to a culture’s sense of geography. I was especially intrigued by the Swahili names for countries and continents. This is pure speculation on my part, but I imagine that one can get a sense of people’s evolving mental map of the world based on how Swahilified different placenames are. The name for Europe, Ulaya, seems pretty much unintelligible in terms of any European term for the continent, so I would guess that Swahili people had some awareness of a large land mass to the north before European infiltration took place. Portugal was the first arrival on the scene, and its name looks similarly obscure: Ureno. I learned from the Swahili wikipedia that the name comes from the Portuguese word for “king,” and it originated when Vasco de Gama and other explorers announced that the King of Portugal had sent them. By the time we get to England, Uingereza, we have a name that’s clearly derived from the real European name but still a bit garbled. The real johnny-come-latelies, like Marekani and Kanada, have names that sound pretty much like their English name with a Swahili accent- and once in a while, an extra vowel at the end.

6 comments:

Dad said...

Interesting that you should choose language as a subject. My pre-colonial Africa class includes details the tracking early Afican migrations using links between the hundreds of languages. Swahili came up in a discussion of western migrations of SE Asian people bringing amoung other things bananas to Africa.

Kate Fleurange said...

I can't wait to indulge in some serious aiskrimu!!!

Dustin said...

I'm not sure if you still post in this blog, but I came across it, just today, looking up chipsi mayai on Google, and was intrigued.

I lived in Dar for two years attending the International School of Tanganyika (I graduated in '09) and wish I could have stayed there for even longer! Although it's sad to be back, it's great looking back at the memories, both with my friends at my school and with the locals.

Anyways, I'm curious as to how long you've been in Tanzania, because you seem to know a lot about the culture, language and history.

I never went directly into the Kariakoo market, but I went to the nearby Ilala market, which I just loved. I never had any incident of theft or attempted theft, aside from at the Ubungo station, where an especially friendly lady who had already directed us to the right bus tapped my shoulder so I would turn around and scare away a thief (I checked my back pocket, which had my wallet in it, and it had been unbuttoned).

I did, however, have one incident where my car was broken into, and my Xbox 360 and 50,000 Tsh were stolen out of it. Funnily enough, the Xbox didn't work, I was taking it to a friend's house to try out at his place. But all I can really say to theft in TZ is that if I have 50,000Tsh/week as allowance from my parents, I don't mind having a few things stolen when the country's average wage is 100Tsh/day (on which they have to raise a family). Not that I wasn't pissed when it happened. Oh, and this was at the Sea Cliff Village, if you know where that is.

Also, just to defend Mwalimu Nyerere, ijamaa did a lot to close the gap between rich and poor (I forget the exact numbers, but it was quite drastic), and although it quickly deteriorated the economy, I think I'd rather have a peaceful nation like Tanzania. The part about Nyerere's domestic policy that set Tanzania apart from their neighbours was his declaration that no tribe was greater than another, and that all tribes, although maintaining their own cultures, were unified in Tanzania.

Also, I believe I read that you're working for a development organization over there, and was wondering whether you're taking or have taken International Development in university, as it's one of the things I'm interested in taking.

Anyways, I hope you read this and reply, I'll be sure to check back for a response for a little while.
Chipsi mayai is absolutely great, especially with the chili tomato sauce.

Dustin said...

I'm not sure if you still post in this blog, but I came across it, just today, looking up chipsi mayai on Google, and was intrigued.

I lived in Dar for two years attending the International School of Tanganyika (I graduated in '09) and wish I could have stayed there for even longer! Although it's sad to be back, it's great looking back at the memories, both with my friends at my school and with the locals.

Anyways, I'm curious as to how long you've been in Tanzania, because you seem to know a lot about the culture, language and history.

I never went directly into the Kariakoo market, but I went to the nearby Ilala market, which I just loved. I never had any incident of theft or attempted theft, aside from at the Ubungo station, where an especially friendly lady who had already directed us to the right bus tapped my shoulder so I would turn around and scare away a thief (I checked my back pocket, which had my wallet in it, and it had been unbuttoned).

Dustin said...

(Sorry for the second half-comment, I thought the first one didn't work.)

Tina Ndonde said...

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA U are so funi and veri crazi lol hahahahahahahaha plizi keep posting...