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.