Thursday, July 4, 2013

So You Think You Know Swahili


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 learning 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.


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