Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A friend going to Kenya asked me for Swahli tips

So, this is what I said. If you have a friend going to East Africa, you can pretend you wrote it.

There's a good online dictionary supported by clock sales.

Jambo - 'Hi!' It's literally 'matter' or 'issue', maybe 'problem'. You'll hear 'taxi' and 'change money' a lot, but these are not strictly greetings. 'Hamjambo' is what you would say to a group. If they had some sort of a beef, they'd say 'tunajambo.' You can have the same conversation about sandwiches. "Hamsandwich"/"tunasandwich." But, say 'jambo' to everyone, and if someone says 'jambo' to you, the correct response is 'jambo.' If they use some wacky other greeting, especially one that starts with 'habari [news]' like 'habari yako [your news]' or 'habari gani [which news]', you'll be fine with 'jambo', although you can look more in the know if you reply 'nzuri [good]'.

Yeah. That brings up pronunciation. It's really a very foreign language -- look at the time sense. The same verb (kutafuta) means 'to find' and 'to seek'. It's not a language that admits failure. But, one aspect of its foreignness that may strike you right off is the way they slam consonants together. The 'n' in 'Nzuri' is one syllable. We'll try to get you saying 'Je mtu gani aana ng'ombe nzuri [which man owns the good cow]' tomorrow or Wednesday. That covers most of the tricky pronunciation you'll need to hear if you want to understand most simple vocabulary.

'Je Unasema Kingleza' - 'Do you speak English?' You don't need any follow up questions like, "I don't speak Swahili [Sisemi kiswahili]" or "Where can I find someone who speaks English. [Mtu yo yote akasema Kingeleza uko wapi?]" It's not Russia. People are intuitive and helpful. They'll grok that you'd like to communicate in English from the very fact that you've asked if they speak it. And they almost certainly will -- you'll only be speaking Swahili to ingratiate yourself.

And speaking of ingratiating yourself! 'Je una watoto wangapi' - 'How many children do you have?' Unless you eat children, there's no reason you'd want to know this. But, it's a great question because Kenyans like answering it. You can get numbers and stuff all over the web -- this has a link to a dialect map -- Gusii (Which is 'Kisii' in English, 'kikisii' in Swahili and 'ekegusii' in Kisii) is the local language I speak and it's a little dark blue patch in the Southwest, which grossly understates the number of people who speak it. There are probably 200 times as many Kisiis as there are Turkana. But, you'll probably run across mostly Luos and Kikuyus; Kisii have suffered gross economic discrimination, continuing retribution for their having killed a British Provincial Commissioner. Unfortunately, I don't remember any Luo, but 'hi' in Kikuyu, Kisii and Turkana respectively are 'Nik'wega', 'Imbuya ore [said as if it were one word with no 'a']' and 'E jok [sounds like 'a joke'. Turkana's the only language I ran across that ended words in consonants -- they're half mongol and have epicanthic folds.]'

'Mimi siwezi kula nyama' -- 'I can't eat meat.' You may find occasion to pretend.

The Daily Nation is the paper I read while I was there [Kenya Times was a party organ and The Standard was just trash] and they have a fine web site.

Just a note on Grammar -- I love Swahili, but I'd probably simplify the grammar. Having eight noun classes really lets you communicate shades of meaning well, but can get a little unwieldy. You can treat everything as n-class and singular, and just say '[pesa] ngapi' for 'how many/much [money]', '[chumba] yangu/yako' for 'my/your [room]' and '[ndizi] iko wapi' for 'where are the bananas?'

final link

Oh, and most people don't actually say 'je' before a question, but you should. It's optional, but a valuable clue to the listener -- Swahili speakers inflect questions in a way that you won't probably have time to pick up.

1 comment:

Lawrence said...

very simple explanation on the swahili issue..I love the play in words and descriptions. Am a kenya that's why I had to ponder and read through. good luck..if your friends happen to be in Mombasa let them holla out and I could help them in any information necessary..

laurekuria@yahoo.com or +254722858611..

kind regards,