Pick of the Day : Swahili, that Liquid Language

In today’s Pick of the Day, for D’s Art Takes, I Divvya Nirula present my take on – “Swahili, That Liquid Language”

Kinywa Ni Jumba La Maneno, Mouth Is The Home Of Words

The beautifully lyrical words in Swahili are perfect as they transfer the meaning of the words. With a penchant for proverbs and sayings, I have found the African languages to hold a treasure. It is true that the wisdom of Confucius and Rumi are popular, but the words from this ancient tongue are powerful in their expression. This is indicative of why a unique relationship forms between language and civilizations. The intonations and the way the words are formed and make up a syntax are as important as the meaning.

If language is the vehicle of the culture, then the fuel is the inherent wisdom from their beliefs. Also, it never fails to surprise, that separated by every physical marker, the intrinsic wisdom resonates between diverse ethnicities. Truth is truth and wisdom is wisdom, there are only about a thousand ways to get to them.

The European Retelling

Like many of the ancient languages that have been studied over time, Swahili too requires a better understanding. According to African linguists, it is not entirely ‘influenced by Arabic’ as is the popular belief. Although there are plenty of Arabic loanwords in the language, this is because of a host of reasons. Given that the word swahili, is the Arabic sawāḥilī for “of the coast”, historians have pieced the language based on its common usage, namely for trade. Originally, the language belonged as much to the soil and to its native speakers. Of course, owing to the trade influence – the languages did depend on each other as did their speakers. Arabic being a strong language – would easily impact another.

The Europeans documented the contacts of Arabian traders with the inhabitants of the east coast of Africa over many centuries. Swahili finally became a lingua franca used by several closely related Bantu-speaking tribal groups. It was a necessary and important medium of communication. In the early 19th century, the spread of Swahili inland received a great impetus. It was primarily used by the Arab, for ivory trade. It was spoken on the ships bound for slave trading. Linguists have a problem when the language is related solely to these two.

Swahili & History

It was adopted by the German colonialists, who used it extensively as the language of administration in Tanganyika. They lay the foundation for its adoption as a national language of independent Tanzania. In Kenya and Uganda, other local languages received official encouragement during the colonial period, but the tendency in these countries is now to emphasize the use of Swahili. The intonations and dialectical differences were however all-pervasive.

The oldest preserved Swahili literature, which dates from the early 18th century, is written in the Arabic script. So this is perhaps where the primary idea gained mileage. (The language is now written in the Roman alphabet).

Truthfully, there are about 15 main Swahili dialects. The three most important dialects are kiUnguja (or Kiunguja), spoken on Zanzibar and in the mainland areas of Tanzania; kiMvita (or Kimvita), spoken in Mombasa and other areas of Kenya; and kiAmu (or Kiamu), spoken on the island of Lamu and adjoining parts of the coast. Standard Swahili is based on the kiUnguja dialect.

Kenyan Literature

Kenyan literature includes a large body of oral and written folklore. Ancient tribes depended on the social customs heavily and on community support and living. Gathering and sharing stories was a huge part of the lifestyle. So, the oral tradition for the propagation, teaching, and preserving of these languages seems only logical. It was with the advent of trade that it was important to encode and document records. And here is where the influences stepped in, made their mark, and spread their roots. It is not very different from the colonisation of languages in other countries like India.  

During the colonial era, writers of European origin residing in Kenya, such as Elspeth Huxley (The Flame Trees of Thika, 1959) and Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa, 1937), introduced indigenous themes and settings to broad audiences. The Swahili literary tradition is represented by authors such as Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy and Kupona Mwana.

Contemporary novelists, including Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Grace Ogot, Meja Mwangi, Hilary Ngweno, Margaret Ogola, Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, and R. Mugo Gatheru, address problems in colonial and postcolonial society.

Although many of these writers publish in English,  Thiong’o has insisted on publishing first in his native Kikuyu, saying:

“Only by a return to the roots of our being in the languages and cultures and heroic histories of the Kenyan people can we rise up to the challenge of helping in the creation of a Kenyan patriotic national literature and culture that will be the envy of many foreigners and the pride of Kenyans.”

Reading Recommendation

#1 Swahili Culture by Jan Knappert. Dr. Knappert, the Dutch Lecturer of Bantu Languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies, he specialized in Swahili traditional and religious literature. A powerhouse on languages he holds a degree in Sanskrit with Indian history, Hinduism and Buddhism. He also has a degree in Semitic languages with Hebrew, Arabic and Islam, and a Master in Austronesian studies, with Malay, Tagalog, Hawaiian and Malagasy. (2005 publication)

#2 A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, published by Heinemann in 1967, is set in the Mau Mau Revolution, perched just before gaining independence from Britain.

Visit the archive for more Pick Of The Day shares from over the years in areas of art, culture, politics and tech.