Kenya, Rants

The Evolution of Language

Last week I was reading about the evolution of Latin languages in Western Europe and it made me think about Swahili here in East Africa. Swahili is the official language of Kenya and Tanzania (and apparently Uganda, but I’ve been there and I didn’t hear much). The thing is, while most Kenyans do speak Swahili, everyone knows it’s not the sanifu (“pure”) brand you’ll find spoken in Tanzania. After independence, Tanzania’s first president was all excited about forging a strong national identity, and part of that was pushing for the adoption of Swahili as the national language. I read in Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari that one independence-era government official’s words were: “English is the language of the imperialists.” Sure enough, traveling in Tanzania is hard if you don’t speak Swahili because English is by no means pervasive!

Swahili originates from the coastal region of East Africa; in fact swahili means “coast” in Arabic, a name given to the coastal dwellers by the Arab traders of that region in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although it’s written in the Latin alphabet now, it used to be written using the Arabic script. Coastal Kenyans still speak a more pure Swahili, but as you move towards Nairobi the language becomes almost gibberish due to the influence of English. They call it “sheng,” a clever combination of Swahili and English which is not unlike “slang” in any other language.

Because I’m just learning, I can tell when my friends and colleagues say something that doesn’t make sense or isn’t quite proper. I don’t do it to be snooty, I’m honestly curious or confused, so I ask a lot of questions! “But, you say this when you’re talking about that, so why did you say…” blah blah blah! When I point out these funny things most of them roll their eyes and tell me that speaking the pure Swahili is a chore. Here’s a few funny things, for example (for my Kenyan readers):

  • Wrong: Habari ya masiku?
  • Right: Habari za siku mingi?
  • Meaning: “How have all the days been,” said when you haven’t seen someone for some days.
  • Wrong: Nilikula mandazi mbili.
  • Right: Nilikula mandazi mawili.
  • Meaning: “I ate two andazis.” An “andazi” is a fried flour thing, kinda like a doughnut.

Most Swahili greetings in Kenya are… interesting, and don’t make sense when translated:

  • “Sema,” literally “speak,” to which someone responds “poa” (cool).
  • “Sasa?” Sorta like “now,” but not as in time, as in “Now listen up!” The response to this one is “fiti,” which is basically like “fit,” as in physically, or athletically.
  • “Niaje?” Which literally translates to “is how?” The response to this one is “poa” or “safi” (clean).

Don’t get me wrong, as funny as these are, I’ll be saying these to the first Tanzanian or Kenyan I see when I get back to California… hah!

It used to bother me that the Swahili I was learning was the “corrupted” version, and sometimes I even wondered if Kenyans would forget the “real” Swahili all together and create something entirely different. Notice, I said, “used to bother me.” I realized that the language works here; people conduct business, raise families, make friends, etc, all with this “Kenyan” Swahili.

A few hundred years ago Latin was the language people spoke in Western Europe. Nobody speaks Latin anymore, because all those isolated groups developed the languages we now call French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. I had never thought about it like that before, but when I read it everything made sense. I don’t think anyone would ever say that French is a “corrupted” version of Latin, because it’s FRENCH!

In two hundred years nobody will speak the language they do today, and that’s fine with me. In one hundred years nobody will speak Swahili, they’ll be speaking Kenyan, or Tanzanian, or whatever. In America we’ll be speaking American. haha.

3 Comments

  1. loreen okoth

    when it comes to language as kenyans you can only define youself by your mother tongue.here’s what happened,the sultans from yemen/oman came to the african coast by the late 1500.they colonised the coastal communities and as a result of this swahili became a language for the coastal people.arab and the coastal languages where fused and swahili came up.it’s really hard for us to accept it fully because most of us and our forefathers where not raised using it.the british came and introduced english.kenyans are different from tanzanians such that where the tanzanians saw ‘language of the imperials’ we saw the use of it in future even if we where glad they where gone.my generation has never been able to use the either of the two languages as a means of communication.we came up with the next best thing ‘sheng’ meaning english and swahili fused together and used as one langauge comfortably.so i guess our sheng is the future 100yrs to come.come to think of it we will be doing both languages a favor in that we wil be using both languages although corrupted.note:this is minus the slang words that have been incorporated over the years.there’s like a raging debate over the use of sheng among the youth and if it should allowed to be taught in schools and encourage students to write in this language.i think sriking a perfect balance between the two languages so that we can use sheng effectively as a recognised language in future.

  2. loreen okoth

    ‘sheng’ as we call it is the future,being kenyan it is easier to speak it and we have made it our’s that is special,i look forward to the future.you have to be into sheng to understand my perspective.

  3. loreen okoth

    don’t you just love how we speak,the beauty of it is that most of the time people think it doesn’t make sense but it does to us.it’s fun too think of it where else can use that language and get away with it.this applies to both english and swahili.between the two i think english is spoken more fluently as compared to swahili by most kenyans although we abuse it.this is a conversation between two people;personA:’uko?’ meaning “where are you?”.personB:”imagine niko kwa jam meaning”imagine i am in a jam”. the use of the word imagine is abused when using english.i love the way we speak sort of crazy but it’s great.

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