Thursday, May 17, 2012

The myth of linguistic purity

Professor Farooq A. Kperogi's piece on "The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words" is an interesting read. While I do not speak a word of Yoruba, I can see parallels between the context he describes (in response to the Italian Professor Sergio Baldi's "On Arabic Loans in Yoruba") and the Kenyan one. I am a speaker of Swahili, a Bantu language whose lexicon has also been expanded over the centuries with vocabulary from Arabic, among other languages. Hence, I know for a fact that most, if not all, of Kenya's languages have in turn benefited from this expanded Swahili lexicon by themselves absorbing words from Swahili that are originally of Arabic origin. 


There's nothing unusual about this. I think that every spoken language bears testimony to the interaction of two or more groups of people, and, over time, comes to include vocabulary from myriad other languages. Languages are, in this way, records of the history of human interaction. They are simultaneously records of the spread of ideas over land and sea. Because languages reveal the degree to which different groups interact, intermarry and influence each other, it is remarkable to me that ethnic nationalists  are able to base their claims for ethnic supremacy on the perceived purity of their languages. Does the irony of the situation escape them?


I remember reading an opinion piece written in that very mold a few years ago. An individual was making the case for abandoning Swahili as the national language of Kenya, pointing to its Arabic-sourced vocabulary as proof of its 'impurity,' and unsuitability for consideration as an authentic African language. The individual then declared that one of the other indigenous languages of Kenya would make a more suitable national language. I pondered on his words awhile, wondering which of these indigenous Kenyan languages would qualify as 'pure.' 


Might it be Gikuyu? Consider the following words:
TABLE: Metha (Gikuyu) <- Meza (Swahili) <- Mesa (Portuguese)
BOOK: Ibuku (Gikuyu) <- Book (English)
PAINT: Rangi (Gikuyu) <- Rangi (Swahili) <- Rangi (Persian)
TIME/ HOUR: Ithaa (Gikuyu) <- Saa (Swahili) <- Sa'a (Arabic)


What about Dholuo? Sure enough,Dholuo had its fare share of vocabulary borrowed from other languages, including the following:
TABLE: Mesa (Dholuo) <- Meza (Swahili) <- Mesa (Portuguese)
BOOK: Buk (Dholuo) <- Book (English)
TIME/ HOUR: Saa (Dholuo) <- Saa (Swahili) <- Sa'a (Arabic)
PLATE: San (Dholuo) <- Sahani (Swahili) <- Sahn (Arabic)
MINUTE: Dakika (Dholuo) <- Dakika (Swahili) <- Daqiqa (Arabic)

An analysis of the tens of other Indigenous Kenyan languages would have revealed similar issues. So where exactly would one draw the line, determining which language was African enough to displace Swahili? Linguistic purity is a myth. By extension, so is cultural purity. So when do we plan on revising our understandings of what it means to be Kenyan, Nigerian, or African to reflect this?

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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