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Swahili vs. English

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.

9 Responses to “Swahili vs. English”

  1. Paul Ogden Says:

    The phenomenon of misplaced grammatical markers also finds a good
    home in Hebrew — as do many other English borrowings.

    The back axle of a car is a ‘bakax’. The front axle of a car is a ‘bakax kidmi’, ‘kidmi’ being Hebrew for forward.

    The best of all, though, is like the Swahili examples: the sealed beam, a one-piece car headlight that contains lens, reflector and filament in a single sealed unit. Hebrew ‘silbim’, however, was taken as a plural since -im is a regular masculine plural ending. So, a single headlight is called a ‘silb’.

  2. Paul Ogden Says:

    Here are some more:

    Patrol has been taken over as a regular Hebrew verb: Le-fatrail (to
    patrol); hu pitrel (he patrolled); pitrul (patrolling).
    Format too: Le-farmet (to format); hu firmet (he formatted); firmut
    (formatting).

    Synchronize: Le-sankhren (to synchronize); hu sinkhrain (he
    synchronized); nistakhren (let us synchronize).
    Discuss: Le-daskess (to discuss); hem diskisu (they discussed).

  3. Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira Says:

    I can think of a Swedish example. Potatis (potato) comes from potatoes (I’m inclined to think so), but its plural form is potatisar, which has two plural markers: the English s and the Swedish ar.

    Another interesting example is fans in Italian. Many Italians say Sono fans di Laura Pausini (I’m fans* of Laura Pausini), using a plural word in a language that dislikes end syllable s.

    Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira

  4. rbeard Says:

    Do they use a plural “fansi”?

  5. rbeard Says:

    There are also similar examples in English, such as “the hoi polloi” where “hoi” = “the” (the people). In fact, if we allow abbreviations into the game, real redundancy appears in English-only phrases, e.g. “ATM machine”.

  6. Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira Says:

    No, fansi is not used.

  7. janderson013 Says:

    I’ve noticed the same thing a lot in Greek, specifically with words related to modern technology. Usually the word gets borrowed with little or no modification other than a thick accent.

  8. cynthia pate Says:

    Hello,
    I am a middle school teacher working on a grant that links the underground railroad in the U.S. with the African baobab tree. I want to give the project “GIVING SHELTER” but cannot find the proper translation in swahili. It is important that I use the correct translation and also pronounce the two words correctly.
    Could you possibly help?
    Thank you,
    Cynthia Pate

  9. Jean Burke Says:

    My favourite example from Swahili is video. This isn’t official but some Swahili-speakers understand the vi-prefix as referring to plural (things)as it does in Swahili. Hence one video may be called a kideo!

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