TIA Tales – learning the lingo
Since I came to East Africa I have tried to master the main language used here – Swahili. I may be an English teacher but that does not make me good with languages (OK hopefully it makes me good with English!). After all these years I am still not fluent in Swahili, but I have come to discover the beauty and the humour in this amazing language. I thought I’d share a few of the best of my language anecdotes with you this week.
As a very quick bit of background, Swahili is a Bantu (African) language which also borrows from other influential languages such as Persian, Arabic and English – caki, fridgi, lifti are all words we know well, just without the ‘i’. In fact, a good rule for Swahili is if you don’t know the word, say it in English and just an ‘i’. It’s amazing how often it works. I once spent at least five minutes explaining that I had lost my music stand, miming the way it extends from a small folded piece of metal, explaining in disjointed Swahili that I use it for singing, it’s to help me see the music, blah blah. After all that the lady who works in our house simply said “Ah, standi”! Humiliating! She must have done impressions of me to her family that night after work, bet they were wetting themselves!
OK, so here’s l’il ol’ me with nothing but a French GCSE to qualify me in my language adventure (completely useless in this instance, by the way) and I try to have a go. People here are brilliant about letting you try out their language and massacre it – if they can get the gist of what you’re on about they will go along with it and even smile and congratulate you on your efforts. Buoyed by their encouragement I ordered a bottle of beer in my first year in Kenya “Chupi ya Tusker, asante” I announced loudly across the bar. The waitress collapsed in hysterics… I had just ordered Tusker pants. Chupa is bottle, chupi is nickers!
There are several very close sounding words that can land you in trouble. I once had a very confusing conversation that went like this:
“Una olewa?” says a guy at the bar. (Are you married?)
“Hapana, nina sio lewa?” I respond (probably terrible grammar but basically I said ‘no I’m not drunk’) He laughed.
“Una elewa?” Then I understood that I had misinterpreted. (Do you understand?)
The language is so subtle that a one letter difference can indicate several things, including a change of tense, a change to the negative or a total change of meaning. In the case above ‘married’, ‘drunk’ and ‘understand’, three very different meanings, are just one letter apart!
Having said that, the language is actually very simple in many ways. It does not have endless tenses, relying largely on one future tense for example (a fascinating reflection of the culture’s lack of forward planning, living in the present is actually a very positive part of living here in many ways) and barely using the conditional (if) at all. It also makes more complex words out of simple ones so the overall vocabulary is far smaller than that of the English language.
For example moja means one. This word is used in all sorts of ways to create other words.
Pamoja = as one = together.
Moja con moja = one by one = straight ahead (one foot in front of the other)
Maramoja = at once = immediately
Saamoja = the first hour (which is 7am – remember from my Africa Time TIA Tale?)
As a result of this simplicity there are some beautiful descriptions for words we have in English. Take ‘airport’ for example. There is no direct translation , so words to describe it have been combined. In Swahili it is ‘Uwanja wa ndege’ which translates directly to ‘playing field for birds’ or better ‘place where the (metal) birds play’. Love it!
Spelling in Swahili is kind of a fluid affair, although during colonial times there was a drive to unify the many versions of grammar, word choice and spellings, the idiosyncracies have remained and are very endearing. Spelling is generally phonetic and all letters are pronounced. Of course, that does make spelling in English quite comical on occasion. My car, for example, is known as Pheobe. When I checked it in to the garage she was recorded, not by her number plate (yay Tanzania!) but as Fibi! Some of my favourite mis-spellings include:
- A little electrical shop titled ‘the erectronics hut’
- The Exacutive Hotel
- Lubricants (won’t spell this one out, but the a was a u!) If you’re shocked now, try seeing it in giant red capital letters!
Actually, a big problem here for those speaking English, is the confusion between ‘l’ and ‘r’. It comes from one of the tribes and many many people struggle with it in reading and general speech. So much so, in fact, that one town near by has a sign saying Ramadi on the way in and Lamadi on the way out – no one knows which is right!
Oh, and there’s another one. ‘Right’ becomes ‘light’. My friend, Kate, and I used to have a gym instructor who had us in stitches as he called instructions from the front of the class – “Good radies, and reft… and light!”
But perhaps most famous of all was a safari guide who excitedly pointed out “Rook, a lhino in the rong glass!” That took some translation!
In Kenya, Swahili and English are the joint national languages and everyone has a pretty good grasp of English. In Tanzania this is not the case and many people really don’t understand much English at all.
A favourite example is this: Whilst on safari last Christmas it was my brother-in-law-to-be’s (Oli’s) birthday and at the hotel in the Serengeti we had ordered a fudge cake for him. We’d emailed our request prior to arrival and received a very positive email back saying that it would be no problem.
So, after an incredible day game watching on Oli’s birthday, we’d headed back for dinner. Having stuffed ourselves at the buffet, the waitress beckoned us excitedly towards a cake tin – she wanted us to inspected it before she presented it to the birthday boy.
“Did we spell it right?” she asked, genuinely proud of her work. As my gaze moved towards the cake I remember thinking ‘this is good service, I guess they could have spelled Oli with a y or something…’, it was a slow motion moment, I finally read the icing. It said: ‘Happy Birthday Fudge’!…
“Yeees, you spelled it right” we agreed before collapsing into fits of giggles. It wasn’t even fudge cake. No one in the hotel had any idea what fudge was, but they didn’t like to ask!
And finally…people wear all sorts of clothes here, a real mish-mash. Many of the clothes come from Oxfam-type charitable imports and are then sold in little huts at second-hand prices. Why am I telling you this? Well, I have one last image to leave you with, that shows how important it is to speak the language you are surrounded by, or in this case, wearing… I spotted one poor guy wearing a pink t-shirt featuring the words ‘I can’t even think straight let alone be straight!’ Now, don’t get me wrong, no problem if you are wearing it to make a statement in the Western world, but in a country where being gay is actually illegal (yes, I know, let’s not go there) I can pretty much guarantee that was a statement he hadn’t intended to make!