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Kiswahili, A Language of Action

I love language.  I love language because I love thinking, and language is our vain attempt to express our thoughts to others, the primary means of collaboration and arguably one of our species’ greatest strengths.  Joining the Peace Corps I was very excited at the prospect of getting to live in another language, immerse myself in how different people attempt to express their thoughts: hunger, anger, ambition, love; for though we may all share similar thoughts across this small world of ours, our needs essentially being the same, how we prioritize our needs and subsequently our thoughts is still one of the primary means we use to differentiate cultures from one another.  After a year and a half of living within the land of the Swahili, I have begun to notice some interesting aspects about the Kiswahili language.

Kiswahili has a ridiculous number of words that stem from verbs.  It seems that almost every word that comes out of ones mouth is derived from a verb.  Whole sentences can be constructed upon the prefixing, suffixing and infixing of verbs.  Subjects, objects, tenses, continuations, subjunctive states, all of these things and more can be expressed with one verb, properly fixed.  With Kiswahili, it’s as if the entire language is derived from action in all forms and how that action impacts the surrounding.

With English there seems to be moreetymology of words, and therefore a deeper understanding of their origins.  However, it’s harder to see such blatant connections between thought process as in Kiswahili. As is my understanding of Kiswahili, though it is a mixture of several languages, many of those languages are much more pure than English is comparatively, which gives me confidence that such derivations are more intentional to the original Kiswahili thought process, and less a coincidence.  In other words, because a verb seems to derive from a verb, it is in fact originally derived from that verb.  In English, though you can trace a history, it’s harder to trace original intent.

Let’s dive into the fun.  In their infinitive form a Kiswahili verb consists of an infinitive prefix, ku, followed by the verb radical or root.  For example, kupoa means, “to cool down,” or, “to become cold,” where ku is the infinitive prefix, and poa the root word for cooling down.  Kuzunugu is the infinitive meaning “to wander,” with zungu being the root, wander.

From these roots, the language flourishes.  For example, those that perform the actions, the nouns, are derived from the verb roots.  In its most literal sense, the word mzungu, which I so loathe, means, “the guy wandering around.”  Kulima is the verb “to cultivate or farm” and an mkulima is a farmer. So on and so forth.  The term ushahidi, which translates as “testimonial,” derives from the verb kushahidi, “to testify.”

As with all languages these literal meanings get lost, their derivations become culturally obfuscated.  A perfect example is mzungu.  Nowadays, when somebody says mzungu, they most like mean a foreigner (the guys who originally came here wandering around…), but not just any foreigner, most likely a Caucasian.  Black foreigners are oftentimes considered to be Africans and East Asians are called, mchini which means a person from China.  Some mzungu get even more frustrated with the generalization and sarcastically think the word means money, or walking money tree, because that is how some mzungu are treated here in Kenya.

Poa is another word that has taken on a different meaning.  It just means, “cool.”  Not cool as in temperature, but cool in a way an American might say, “The movie was cool.”  I don’t know when this word assumed its current form, but it is one of the few slang words that seems to translate almost literally between American slang and Kenyan slang.

I want to go so far and hazard a guess that the most common, culturally accepted pleasantry, the translation for “thank you,” also derives from a verb.  Based on the derivation rules of the Kiswahili language, I want to suggest that the verb kuasanta may be a synonym for the verb kushukuru, which means “to thank.”  However, over time, kuasanta has assumed the spoken form of asante, which would suggest that it is a polite, weak, imperative, but is simply used as, “thanks.”  However, none of the online dictionaries seem to contain the verb in its root.  Many of these dictionaries contain only modern usage of words, of which asante is the only acceptable form, so I might have to dig up an old Zanzibar dialect dictionary, from which modern Kiswahili originates.

Language is fun.  Just as I love learning about English derivations and word histories, I also love putting together word histories for Kiswahili.  The one caveat is that old form Kiswahili literacy is losing ground because not as many people were educated in Kiswahili as a literate art back when people were still using old form.  In its modern incarnation Kiswahili has assumed a much more functional base upon which modern day literary artists are building a new language, a blend of Kiswahili and English called sheng.  Because more people are educated within this new linguistic ecosystem, the old form will die away.  Neither good nor bad, it’s just the natural progression of language, though it’s sad to see any language die. I jut fear the day that in losing a language, we may lose the only way we know to express our innermost thoughts.


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