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Why ‘where?’ is a tricky question to answer in Swahili

Every language has unique idiosyncrasies. One thing about Swahili that seems odd to English speakers is the complexity and breadth you can use when talking about location. Grammatically, there isn’t a simple answer to the question ‘where?’

You use different words to talk about locations that are general (e.g. in town), specific (e.g. at my home) or inside (e.g. in the house). There are several ways to say ‘in’. There are at least 3 distinct constructions you can use to talk about location. What seems like superfluous detail in English is built into the structures of Swahili.

I’m not a linguist, but I feel like language, including language constructions, can carry cultural baggage, if not cultural meaning. I wonder, is there something cultural in this precision about space?

One thing that makes this particularly fascinating is that while the average Tanzanian has an intricate knowledge of the geography of Tanzania and the idiosyncrasies of each town and tribe, their knowledge of world geography is very general. Even after people find out we’re from Australia (not America or England where all wazungu hail from, apparently), they console us about the hot sun in Tanzania. It comes as a great surprise that Adelaide gets hotter than Dodoma! It’s as if there’s Tanzania, and maybe ‘Africa’, but everywhere else is simply ‘other’.

Likewise, the specificity of references to space doesn’t extend to talking about the human body. Hand, wrist, forearm, elbow, shoulder, etc all have their technical words, but most people are happy to call them an ‘arm’ and work it out from context.

Why is there such precision around location but not around other spaces?

On the classification of body parts, perhaps there’s an etymological explanation. Swahili was influenced by both Bantu languages and Arabic.

There may be an extent to which Tanzanians simply don’t care that much about classifying body parts, or knowing much about the outside world. However, many have not had the opportunity either. I guess it’s possible that if more Tanzanians studied and talked about these things, language would change over time. (I’m not saying this necessarily should or would happen!) It’ll be interesting to see how true these generalisations are of uni students.

Another hypothesis regarding geography is that this reflects Tanzania’s place in a wider world. They know about England because the English were colonisers (and you could argue Americans are neo-colonial.) For many, their main interactions with foreigners are with tourists on an exotic holiday: transactional rather than relational, with little interest in learning about the other from either side. So there’s little need to develop precision in speaking about other countries.

Whatever the reason, what is there to celebrate about this idiosyncrasy?

While it seems superfluous in English, Swahili’s precision about location enhances a reading of the Bible’s ‘in him’. One thing I’ve found exciting is that a passage like 1 John 2:5 is a little more striking in Swahili because the ‘inside’ words, the most ‘zoomed in’ construction are used. Rather than just being ‘in him’ as in the English version, in Swahili, we are something like ‘on the inside of him’. I love how vivid this is.

Categories: Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

7 replies

  1. I find the idiosyncratic features of languages interesting too — the stuff that the language, through its grammatical and/or syntactical “machinery,” obliges you to keep track of and be precise about. But it’s hard to tell if those things have (or perhaps had, at some point) any “deep” cultural meaning, or if they’re just sort of arbitrary bells and whistles that somehow evolved but don’t really have much to do with anything other than the language in and of itself.

    For instance, English is obsessed with keeping track of how specific things are: books vs. a book vs. the book, etc; a lot of other languages don’t do this. Also, English is obsessed with distinguishing very fine nuances with respect to tenses, in a way that many other languages aren’t — for example, if you want to talk about the past, you have a large variety of choices: I went, I was going, I have gone, I had gone, I used to go, I have been going, I had been going, etc. etc.

    Do these quirky features of English have any deep relation to or significance for English speaking cultures? Maybe, maybe not…hard to say.

    Have you noticed any new things with regard to either English or Swahili, in terms of relationship between this aspect of language and culture?

    1. Great comment Adam! Yes, it’s hard to tie down how much of it has deep cultural meaning, but I recently had a convo with a Tanzanian friend who was trying to learn English about articles (a, the, etc.) They don’t exist in nearly the same way in Swahili and she just couldn’t get her head around the concepts I was trying to explain. I do think there’s something cultural there – English speakers are obsessed with quantifying and systematising in a way that Swahili speakers are not.

      The thing with the past tenses is interesting too. Swahili has a few past tenses but most people don’t use all of them, unlike in English. But time has a different cultural meaning generally. When they say ‘kesho’ (‘tomorrow’) is just means ‘some time in the near or possibly not near future’! Likewise, ‘zamani’ is a vague idea of the past and though I want to tie it down to how far in the past, Swahili speakers don’t care so much! Interestingly, though, they have a whole tense that English doesn’t have – a storytelling tense that denotes subsequence. Stories are much more important than classification!

  2. I wonder if they actually have a different sense of past/future than people who speak another language. That’s pretty interesting, because it seems like a lot of our sense of what things are like, even what we are like, is tied in with how we relate to time (i.e., sense of past, future, etc).

    The Thai language isn’t nearly as concerned with pinning down time/tense as English is — but of course, that doesn’t give any clue as to what Thai people’s actual experience of time is.

    A storytelling tense sounds cool! Like a “once upon a time…” mode? Does it distinguish between stories that “really” happened and those that didn’t? “Subsequence” — one thing following another??

    1. ‘Narrative’ might be a better word to use for it than ‘storytelling’ as it’s used for fiction and non-fiction. Same thing exists in Hebrew and has implications for how we read the Old Testament!

  3. Ah, I guess that’s my conceptual framework — slotting events into happened or didn’t happen, fiction or non-fiction.

    Still, I’d be curious as to what ends up in the narrative/storytelling tense, and what doesn’t.

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