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
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.