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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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Variations on thought

As I have said to many, and will continue to say again and again, Peace Corps needs a new tag line.  Nuts to, “The toughest job you’ll ever love,” I say we switch to, Peace Corps: “Time to think.”  Here is a list of some (emphasis) of the thoughts I have had since waking up about two hours ago:

  • How would I solve the problem of ballast for a personal aircraft.  Mind you, not a rotor-based design such as a gyrocopter, because those are just not safe enough, but instead an airship-type (think Hindebergh or Goodyear, but smaller).
  • Man I have the best idea for a video game/story line: Airships and dragons.  Take Skies of Arcadia and add in more dragons, and more blimp-like airships, not just literal (littoral, oh snap!) nautical vessels that conveniently fly thanks to the power of the moon.
  • After listening to Willie Nelson’s rendition of Imagine, and particular the line, “Nothing to kill or die for,”: But killing and dying is how we determine what ideas get passed on to the new generation and in what quantity and socially-acceptable quality.  Survival is based on slight differentiation that allows the species as a whole to continue on, but if we are all thinking the same and not willing to say our idea is good enough and others harmful enough to the species, where is the differentiation.  I don’t care how “peaceful,” an idea is, it’s our differences that make humanity strong.  Man, I wonder if distances in space are large enough to promote unity of ideas on one planet vs. another planet (think Card’s Speaker For The Dead universe), that speciation might occur if humans are no longer able to travel at faster-than-light speeds (think Asimov’s Robots universe).
  • Do I really want to go for a run this afternoon?
  • Hey, I can justify spending time on writing a Bash script for erasing Gnome settings because it’s lab maintainence work.
  • I wonder if I should try my hand at composing music for the recorder.  There’s not enough free music on the internet suitable for solo tenor recorder.
  • I should blog about my weekend, and some other things, but I think I will blog about thinking instead.
  • Should I go into Mtongwe for a nutrient-rich lunch or read more of The Masterharper of Pern and just cook ramen?
  • Did I really just think the word nutrient-rich when describing lunch to myself in my own brain?

Mind you, this is not a near complete list, and mind you on that, a completely complete list, including sub-sconscious thinking, would be extensive and boring.  Though I am beginning to wonder how different my sub-conscious thoughts and actions have begun to diverge from my typical of a year ago.  Daily language alone has become reflexively the mix of english and kiswahili that Kenyans call sheng.  I actively think about whether I will need to fill a bucket to flush the toilet. And where the heck is my second set of keys?

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