Another facet of Tanzanian culture that intrigued me was the art of the language: be it Swahili, English or Maa (the language of the Maasai tribe). The few weeks leading up to my trip back to Tanzania I reviewed a few of my Swahili words, phrases and expressions. Even though in 2009 I didn’t pick up on much nor was I very involved in the local culture, for this trip I wanted a few more phrases to get around. I had no idea what exactly was awaiting me when I arrived in terms of my accommodation, the project, or the people I’d be working with, so I aimed to be prepared for any circumstance. Since Swahili isn’t a very widely known language (mainly only Eastern Africa speaks it), getting any helpful books or websites in the Western world was definitely a struggle: a relied a lot on my journal from 2009, as well as a friend of mine at Emerson who happened to have grown up in Tanzania! Luckily, once I arrived in Arusha, I bargained with a local for a phrase book- it was definitely my life saver on various occasions.
Swahili is a great language. It’s easy to learn, easy to pronounce and easy to understand. It’s pronounced as it is read- all phonetics- there aren’t any strange rolling sounds like in Latin languages or strange raspy swallowing “g”s like in Dutch: it’s very straight forward. They use the same 26 letter alphabet as most European/Western nations, as well as the name number system: no artistic characters or backwards reading to wrap your head around. At least for me, it made it easier to pick up in matter of days.Of course, like many languages, there are idioms and slang words that don’t come in phrase books, this makes it exceedingly more difficult to act like a local; nonetheless I certainly felt like Tanzanians were willing to help you out if you were stuck on a word.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Swahili for me was the inclusion of so many English-based words. For example, a t-shirt in Swahili is “t-shirty”, socks are “socksies” and so on so forth. It isn’t necessarily a rule of thumb, but the general idea is that most nouns have an “ee” sound on the end. My favorite word, which we definitely heard multiple times a day was “goodie”: this doesn’t mean a “goody bag” at a party or restaurant…this is the Swahili adjective “good”. More often that not it would also be doubled like “goodie goodie”, as if it was one word, one exclamation or one appraisal! I’ve started adopting this “goodie” in my daily English: it’s not only catchy but also a great sound and very fun to say! There is definitely a tendency to double everything in Swahili. A motorbike is a “piki-piki”, the local bus is a “dalla dalla”, “slowly” is “pole pole”, “faster” is “haraka haraka”and so on. These are quirks of a language that I have yet to really discover in others that I’ve heard before…I guess a lot of it comes with the experiences I lived in Tanzania and the need to know the language to get around! But it’s truly special and a great way to remind myself of the experiences I had there!
Another incorporation of English was in the actual spoken, day-to-day words. What I mean by this is that locals would speak Swahili and every so often real English, non-“ee”-ending, words would appear. On TV, on the radio, in newspapers and magazines, English words would stick out between the interestingly composed words of Swahili. Thinking back now, it’s difficult to think of an exact example, however a vague conversation with my host father does come to mind: whilst the children and us volunteers ate dinner, Jacob (my host father) asked Wilness, the eldest daughter, what the “teacher” had taught today in “school”.
Every word except for teacher and school was in Swahili: for me, I was a little surprised yet very interested into why he had just mixed two languages (one of which isn’t his native one) into one sentence. I know I do that on a daily basis, espeically here in Portugal with my family, where Portuguese/French/English all mix into my mind and form a generally cohesive sentence. Translanguaging this way is something I’ve increasingly grown to admire and study. My first two writing classes at Emerson were a Pilot Bilingual course (Spanish and English) where definitely an eye opener in this art of translanguaging-a word which isn’t in a dictionary and keeps developing a red squiggly line under it as I type it- a form of writing/speaking where two or more languages weave within one another seamlessly and cohesively. Many multilingual people probably know what I’m referring to, but if you’re not definitely seek out writing by Gloria Anzaldua, a Spanish speaking American citizen who grew up on the border of California and Tijuana: a perfect example of translanguaging!
I honestly never thought I’d find this kind of relationship between languages in Tanzania: it happened between English and Swahili, Masai and Swahili and even, on one or two occasions, between Maa and English! I couldn’t believe my ears at the time… I was in awe and piqued interest at the conversations between people.
I strongly encourage any of you Go Girls to take a language course, or dare teach yourself some words of the language of the country you’re visiting. It’s vital to get around, it’s an eye-opener of another aspect of a culture and simply a little challenge for yourself. My Swahili got me around, got me cheaper prices in places and got me more active among locals- definitely challenge yourself, it’ll be worth your while 🙂
Photo attributed to http://www.heartsinunity.org
Leave a Comment