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Archive for May, 2007

Swahili vs. English

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

Kathleen McCune is a fascinating worman who spent several years in Africa where she met a Norwegian whom she married and moved with to Norway. She recently suggested berth as our Good Word and we struck up an e-conversation. Since she was familiar with Swahili, the official language of Tanzania, I asked her about some words that a Swahili speaker mentioned to me decades ago and I had all but forgotten.

The issue is the ignoring of grammatical markers in borrowing. I first met this phenomenon learning Russian, where jeans was borrowed as dzhins-y. The Y is the Russian plural marker, added because the English -S means nothing to Russian. Keksy from cakes is another example.

Swahili does exactly the opposite in several words it borrowed from English: it recognizes initial sounds as prefixes and changes them with case and number. Swahili nouns decline like Latin nouns but unlike Latin, Swahili uses prefixes rather than suffixes. So while “child” is mtoto, “children” is watoto, kikapu is “basket” while vikapu is “baskets”. Swahili has about 7 different pairs of prefixes like these corresponding to different noun classes, just as Latin has several declensions.

One of those classes contain nouns that begin on ma-. In the plural, the prefix is swapped for ba-. Now, Swahili borrowed martini from upper-class English, where R at the end of syllable gets no respect, so the Swahili word is matini. But if you need two of them, guess what you need: two ba-tini!

I love their word for traffic circle (round-about): kipi-lefti, also borrowed from the left-lane-driving British. The ki-class nouns take vi- for their plurals, so if you have to maneuver two traffic circles on your trip, you have maneuvered vipi-lefti.

But Kathleen came up with the funniest example of a Swahili borrowing from English. Students and politicians who go abroad are called (singular) mBenzi or waBenzi as a group when they return. This root is Benzes with the final S lopped off. These people are accorded this name because they are known mostly for bringing Mercedes-Benzes back with them and driving them when they return.