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Kiswahili, Msingi Wa Kusema... : Hinnebusch, Mirza & Stein

02/22/06

  10:52:07 am, by Nimble   , 863 words  
Categories: Reviews, Books, Languages

Kiswahili, Msingi Wa Kusema... : Hinnebusch, Mirza & Stein

Link: http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN//0761809724/thecerealkill-20

I'm getting prepared to go to Africa this year. True to my nature, I've got books on Swahili, the major language of East Africa, on my reading list in preparation.

I first ran across the Swahili language in a used book called "Jifunze Kiingereza", or "Learning English" (for Swahili speakers). It's amazing what you can get out of a foreign English-learning book, though you certainly can't get everything.

I have a bit of a soft spot for Swahili. It sounds quintessentially "African" with phrases like "Hujambo, bwana" (Hello, mister/guy/sir), "Simba!" (lion) and "Mimi ni mwanafunzi" (I am a student). There are some rather odd spots to the grammar, but it's by and large pretty regular, and it's mostly pronounceable by the average North American Joe, unlike things like Russian, Arabic and Chinese (assuming those are not your native languages :) )

This is a pretty good textbook on Swahili.

The chapters are pretty short and do not attempt to pile on too much grammar in one sitting, which is nice. Each chapter has a couple of short conversations, some drills, a story (often about culture or politics), questions about the story, a grammar section, a section for things to try translating, and a vocabulary. Every page has the Swahili words for the page number at the bottom as well, making for a background lesson in counting.

If I had a couple of complaints about this textbook, it would be that occasionally it's hard to find the vocabulary, and that since it's a textbook, it does not come with an answer key or actual translations of the stories, both of which would be nice for self-study purposes.

The 'dictionary' at the end of the book is remarkably complete, but occasionally, you will find yourself at a loss for what a word is. You really have to know some grammar at that point and be willing to try a few things, since Swahili is a prefix-heavy language, that is to say, you pile things up on the beginning of the word, which makes the "root word" harder to find.

Take "nitawaona". What do you look up for this? Well, you strip things off the beginning. "Ni" is the prefix for "I", "ta" is the future tense, and "wa" means "them". You would look up "-ona", and find out that it means "see", thus "I will see them". Since everything's in alphabetical order in dictionaries, prefixes can throw your searches right off.

Some parts of Swahili are pretty simple. Once you understand some of the prefixes, it's pretty easy to put things together. "Ni" means "I", "u" means "you" and "a" means "he or she". So taking the above example, "utawaona" means "you will see them" and "atawaona" means "he/she will see them". Replace the "ta" with "li" for past tense for "niliwaona" (I saw them), or "na" for present tense (I see them), etc. etc.

The one thing in Swahili that is really crazy is their noun classification system. They have lots of different classes of nouns. The "m/wa" class is for people, for example, "mtoto" is "child", "watoto" is "children". The "m/mi" class is for plants, parts and a few other things (like city/cities "mji/miji"... well, I guess they 'grow'), "ki/vi" for useful things (like tools, schools and languages), and on and on it goes. It's like the whole 'le' and 'la' (masculine and feminine) thing in French, but gone wild.

That, and adjectives and the word "of" take prefixes to agree with it. Take -dogo, "small". Kitabu kidogo, "small book", vitabu vidogo "small books", mtoto mdogo, "small child", etc.

There's still some sense behind it, so you're not totally left stranded. For example, kulima means "to cultivate". Mkulima means "farmer". Ingereza is "England", and kiingereza means "English".

Swahili is the language where the word uhuru comes from. The "u" class of words means -dom, -ness or -ism. Huru means "free". Uhuru means "freedom". Nicely done, Star Trek :)

Swahili (or "Kiswahili") is not the native language of everyone in East Africa, but a great many people speak and understand it. There is a considerable amount of English there (apparently, English is the official language in Uganda), but as I've found practically everywhere I have travelled, some effort at language learning goes a long, long way, whether simply trying to read signs or having people warm up to you.

There is of course a touch of Swahili in The Lion King. My wife, Dena, had a good story to tell with this, and I apologize if I don't have all the details right.

When she was teaching a face-to-face class a few years ago, one of the students was from Tanzania. I don't remember the circumstances, but she dropped the phrase "hakuna matata" (there's no trouble) on him. He freaked, but not as much as when it turned out the entire class (definitely in the Lion-King-watching generation) knew the phrase.

Rafiki, which is the name of the mandrill (did they call him a baboon?) in the movie, means "friend" in Swahili.

So with all that blather, I at last bid you "kwa heri!" (Good bye, or literally, "for happiness")

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