Discussing the reason that Ugandans generally don’t speak Swahili despite being surrounded by Swahili-speaking countries and regions. I also give a quick update on my journey (as a Ugandan!) learning Swahili. The vid also contains music videos from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. East Africa baby!!
This is the second video on my quest to learn Swahili. I discuss why Swahili seems to be quite an easy language to pick up compared to some other African languages. I’ll talk about my first Swahili lesson that I had recently and I share some Swahili language music videos which I’ve been digging recently. Apologies for any dodgy pronunciations!
Have you ever wondered where words come from? And why is it that different languages have different words for the same thing?
Creation & the Tower of Babel
If understood literally, the Hebrew Torah (aka ‘Old Testament’) suggests that the first human being was created as a fully grown adult who could speak a language. This man then used this language to give names to the animals, and to the first woman. And in the famous story of the Tower of Babel, we find that humans previously had one shared language until the Creator split them up into several different languages (or dialects?!) in an act of divine retribution. You might write these stories off as myth. But modern linguistics doesn’t have much more to add on the question of the origin of words the the multiplicity of languages.
Language is arbitrary?
The dominant theory on these questions was popularised by Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 1900s. It argues that the connection between words and meanings is essentially arbitrary. There is no natural connection between them. This is allegedly proven by the fact that there are many different languages, which would not be possible if each meaning could only necessarily have one word. It is argued that the only thing that gives any logic to the creation of new words is conventions of languages. But these conventions (syntax, phonology, etc.) are ultimately arbitrary because they are made up of arbitrary words and rules.
When I first came across this idea, I was quite underwhelmed. I wondered if linguists had done any real work to look into whether the creation and development of words and languages could be connected to human physiology. For example, could it be that objects or ideas prompt certain psychological responses in humans and that the words we create are reflections of those impulses? If so, this would mean that there is a natural connection between words and meanings. And I wondered if the existence of different languages could be because different people groups have different kinds of internal responses to stimuli.
Language is not arbitrary, but “embodied”
As I’ve been reading around, I’m happy to see that a small but growing band of academics are making these exact points. One such commentator, Robin Allott uses the term Embodied Language to describe this idea. He writes the following:
Words, syntax and speech-sounds are not arbitrary. They are determined by anatomical, physiological and neurological structures. For each language, the structures of the language are derived from and directly related to other major segments of human behaviour (perception and action). The selection made by a language-community of its specific syntax, words and speech-sounds is not arbitrary or purely conventional but a selection from a range of possible sounds, words and syntaxes, with the community’s preferences being determined by the pooling of genetic features of the population over time. Stability of a language is a result of stability in the genetic composition of the population coupled with the acquisition of a child’s particular language by a process analogous to imprinting in animals and depending on the special character of the language as human behaviour. [Source]
In other words, the words and conventions which comprise our different languages emerged from the biological make up of the different people groups. To support this proposition, Allott refers to a large scale study done in the late 1980s which pointed out the following: ‘Linguistic families correspond to groups of populations with very few, easily understood overlaps, and their origin can be given a time frame. Linguistic superfamilies show remarkable correspondence with the two major clusters, indicating considerable parallelism between genetic and linguistic evolution.’ [Source]
To me, these are much more convincing as possible answers to the origin of words and the multiplicity of languages than the theory of arbitrariness. They could also have some fascinating implications for how we understand the world.
Language and race
For example, if all of this is true, maybe languages can reveal much about the characteristics racial groups? I often hear it pointed out that different languages embody a specific way of looking at the world, of understanding social and familial relations, of relating to our environment, of our perception of the spiritual realm and so on. Perhaps these differences in worldview are not just learned, but are actually derived from our differences on a genetic level?
Language and our ‘true’ selves?
Less controversially, perhaps if our languages are actually based on our genetic make up, this could suggest that people who are able to speak their mother languages are perhaps more in tune with their true selves on a physiological level. And conversely, perhaps someone who is unable to speak their mother tongue, or any languages closely related to it, is biologically alienated from themselves. This has personal interest for me as an African who is unable to speak an African language!
Speaking of which, I’ve started a video series on my Swahili Learning Journey with the first video below. I’d love to hear your comments on this article and the vlog. And please subscribe to the Language and Life e-alerts for new content and exclusive videos.
The more I read around the subject of language, the more I realise that the study of language is in fact the study of humanity. Language is at the heart of what it means to be a human being. It is one of the things that makes us different from all other creatures on this planet. Some would perhaps say it is the evidence of a ‘divine spark’ within each of us. Language is the prism through which we understand the cosmos and the means by which we interact with each other. But before getting into all this, it makes sense to consider what we mean by the term ‘language’.
Signs, meanings and syntax
I find it useful to think of language in terms of signs, meanings and syntax. Signs are things like sounds, letters and gestures which are given certain meanings. These signs are necessarily limited, for example by the range of sounds that humans are able to produce with our vocal chords and this could severely limit our ability to communicate. But we are able to put these signs together into sentences and thus use them to express a wider and wider range of ideas, thoughts, feelings and opinions. We call the system that puts these signs together syntax; “a mechanism that enables human beings to utter or understand an infinite number of sentences constructed from a finite number of building blocks.” [reference] Different languages have their own range of signs and meanings and their own syntax which have developed over time in different places and in different social, economic and cultural contexts.
Value judgements and armies
All languages are spoken but only about a third of them are written. For example, relatively few African languages have been written down and of those few, most were written in very recent times and using characters from other languages. The fact that a language is not written is sometimes interpreted to mean that its speakers are backward. Another closely connected, and equally arrogant, value judgement is the notion that oral spiritual systems and religions are inferior to those centred around sacred writings. This is just one of a number of fascinating discussions in the field of linguistics – the study of language.
Another interesting debate relates to how we distinguish languages from dialects. You might think that there are some clear scientific steps for doing this. Dialects are often thought of as ‘sub-languages‘, forms of communication which are not distinct or formalised enough to qualify as fully-fledged languages. But in reality, these labels depend much more on power relations between groups of people than on any technical criteria. For example, during the European colonisation of Africa, the colonialists decided that the languages spoken in Africa were actually just dialects whereas European tongues were the only proper languages. This has persisted beyond the end of regular colonialism in Africa. As you’ll see elsewhere on this site, there is much truth in the idea that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
The power of language
Another fascinating linguistic discussion centres on how language affects the way we see and understand the world and how does it shape our behaviour? Some argue that language completely determines these things, while others suggest more plausibly that the influence is only partially. Several studies have been done in this area. There is some evidence that speakers of Chinese languages may be less able to think in hypothetical terms because the grammar of these languages lacks a clear way of expressing such concepts. Another study suggested that speakers of east Asian languages may have an advantage over English speakers in mathematics because their numbering systems are more transparent. This website will get right into this thorny area and will consider how these discussions can have serious social implications.
But that’s all for the future. Now that we have a basic definition of language, the next question to ask is where do words come from? That will be subject of the next blog in this series of Language 101. In the meantime, make sure you get future articles in your inbox as well as other exclusive content by subscribing to the Language and Life e-alerts. And please share any questions or comments you’ve got below.
Like many Africans living in Britain, I can only speak one language fluently – English – and I’m not happy about this.
Lost my tongue
Part of this is not my fault really. I was born in Kenya to Ugandan parents and spent the first few years of my life in Nairobi. I’m told that by the time we moved to London I was a talkative 4 year old showing decent skills in Kiswahili which is spoken by millions of people in East and Central Africa.
Unfortunately, this didn’t last. My parents spoke English with me and my brothers at home and we of course spoke English every else we went. The only language I actually remember speaking in my early life is English. We still used a few ‘remnant’ Kiswahili words. So we called the end slices of bread “kwanza.” When dinner was ready, my parents would announce that “chakula tiari.” But none of us was able to converse in Kiswahili.
An added complication to our experience is that Kiswahili is not even our main mother tongue. We come from a nation of people called the Bagisu in eastern Uganda and our ‘native tongue’ is Lugisu. Strangely, our parents would speak to each other in Lugisu, but they didn’t teach it to us. This meant that whenever family members would come and visit from home we would have to endure the routine embarrassment of not even sharing the Lugisu greetings.
Language and immigrant assimilation
I think the main reason my parents didn’t teach us our language is because they wanted to make it as easy as possible for us to settle into life in the UK. This is a familiar story I hear from my fellow diasporan friends from other African countries. Many of our parents had the idea that their children would be hopelessly confused by speaking more languages than just English. But I had loads of classmates of Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Turkish (etc.) backgrounds who were just as proficient in English as I was, but were also able to switch to their own languages when speaking with family and friends. They didn’t seem all that confused!
Blending in with the crowd!
I also share the blame for this. I can distinctly remember as a youngster distancing myself from my African identity. I knew I was different from white people and even from other black people whose parents were from the Caribbean. My parents had a different accent. Even me and my brothers had a slightly different accent when we spoke English to our parents. As soon as I became aware of this, I made a conscious effort to speak to my parents using the same accent as the one I used on the streets. And being different as a child in school is like having a “kick me” sign on your back. My older brothers tell me that they got into quite a few fights when they first went to school here. So the ongoing challenge was to blend in as quickly as possible! This attitude continued as I got older and I made no effort to really get to know anything about my Ugandan heritage, our language, our food, our customs, nothing. So me and my parents were co-conspirators my linguistic disenfranchisement!
Back to the linguistic future!
Sadly, many Africans in the diaspora will be able to relate to this story. And they will probably agree that when you don’t have knowledge of your mother tongue, you also miss out on the connection the language gives to your culture and heritage. But the good news is, we don’t have to be prisoners of our personal histories! As long as we are still breathing and there are people who speak our language – we can still learn!
That’s exactly what I plan to do. I’ll be using this website to keep you updated on my efforts to become vaguely competent in either Lugisu, Luganda or Kiswahili. Subscribe to my email alerts for updates and exclusive content, and also follow me on Twitter: @languageandlife.