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Naming African Languages in English
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

When you read about African languages, there are some inconsistencies in usage.  Is it Swahili or Kiswahili?  Zulu or Isizulu?  Well, it depends on which language you are speaking!  When referring to European languages, you say French, not français, German, not Deutsch.  And we speak of Chinese, not Kwoah Yuu.

When borrowing the names for new languages, what do you do?  The standard usage for English reference to African languages is to use the stem: Swahili, Digo, Luba, etc.  Otherwise you have to investigate every language to learn the language's own grammatical referent for language or manner, which varies among these and similar forms: ki, eke, chi, shi, oshi, si, isi, lu, olu, li.  There are about 1200 Bantu languages; you can see that would be quite a prior task.

Linguistically, the reason is that the first syllable (or two) prefix is a specific grammatical marker, and unmeaningful in English.  (There are a few cases where the best known form containing a prefix is the one used in English: Kinyarwanda or Lunyarwanda, Lingala, etc.  Actually, Kinyarwanda (or Lunyarwanda) has two prefixes, ki (or lu) and nya, explainable in historical and grammatical terms, but unhelpful for most learners.)

Thus we speak of Zulu, not Isizulu, Ndonga, not Oshindonga, Giriama, not Kigiriama.  It helps make sense of this when you learn that all declension or conjugation markers are on the front of Bantu and most other African languages.  In Swahili you have:

        Mswahili - a Swahili person
        Waswahili - Swahilis, or Swahili people
        Uswahili - the Swahili area or country
        Kiswahili - in a Swahili manner
               (and thus the way they speak their language)

The English "Swahili" covers all these.

Other language families have still other prefix systems.  In Luo, for instance, the language is dholuo, a person joluo, the people jaluo.  The stem serves as the English name: the Luo language, person or people, and as the adjective, a Luo grammar.  Except for some well-known exceptions, which have become popular by borrowing the whole term, the stem is the rule in English.


Originally published in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, a cross-cultural communication newsletter, Nairobi, Kenya, March 1993
Last edited and posted on OJ Thoughts and Resources 27 December 2007

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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