So I’ve been trying to figure out how to blog about what brings me the most joy these days so that I wouldn’t bore my readers to death. I mentioned it to another volunteer who arrived in-country with me, a professional woman in her fifties whom I thought, because she was doing on online TEFL course (Teaching English As a Foreign Language), might have a sympathetic ear. Not only was she not interested, she was critical, responding with something like “sounds pretty awful to me” in response to my enthusiastic revelation. Being a bit taken aback with her flat out rejection of something that I thought was utterly marvelous, I have hesitated to tell anyone else. But I continue to be bursting from excitement, so I’ve decided to risk revealing my “terrible” truth again. I realize that it is fairly safe to talk about it here since anyone reading can always simply close the page if they are not interested or, heaven forbid, are as repulsed by the idea as my colleague was!
In my 60+ years on this planet, I have lived several “lives”. Before I was a physician, I was a TEFL teacher educator and program administrator. Before that I was a Bantu linguist. This means that I studied, analyzed, and wrote about, languages that belong to the vast family of languages that encompasses most of the languages spoken south of the Sahara, from Zulu and Xhosa in south Africa, to Swahili in East Africa, and now to Kinyarwanda in Rwanda. Tanzania alone has over 200 Bantu languages and they are not all mutually intelligible. This is one of the reasons that so many African countries have had difficulties unifying: People’s allegiances are to their communities of birth, and these are distinguished from one another by language as well as by cultural traditions.
Swahili holds a special position in the Bantu family, as it has no association with a particular ethnic group in the same way that other Bantu languages have. While it is quintessentially Bantu in terms of its grammatical system, it actually began as a “trade” language, used by Muslim traders and Africans along the East African coast. To be sure, there are communities of native speakers along the coast of East Africa, each speaking their own dialect, but the sociopolitical implications of being a native Swahili speaker are not the same as being a speaker of any other indigenous Bantu language. It was a language of trade, therefore it did not “belong” to anyone else and you were therefore not betraying your birth community if you learned to speak it in order to conduct business.
As a Bantu linguist, I specialized in Swahili. Swahili was my passion. I loved the language, I loved the coastal communities where it was spoken, I took every opportunity I could to go back and visit.
While Swahili will always be my first and only love in terms of personal communication, I can now say from first hand experience, that Swahili is to Kinyarwanda a pale reflection of the elegant complexity possible in a Bantu language. I don’t imagine that my spoken Kinyarwanda will ever be that good, not only because of its complexity, but also because I am here to teach English. That is my first and foremost promise, so my Kinyarwanda explorations are limited to weekends and evenings.
But here is the crux of the matter, despite the fact I may never be able to speak the language very well, I am absolutely over the moon with it as a subject of study and analysis. While my colleague was dismayed at the idea of unlimited linguistic complexity, I am intrigued by it. I find it magical. That people evolve such elegant systems of communication is truly one of the many wonders of the world.
The Kinyarwanda sound system is absolutely astonishing in terms of the various changes and processes involved, all of which exemplify phenomena that have been studied and assigned special technical names by linguists around the world, but which I personally had never had the opportunity to try to conquer as a language learner.
One of my favorites is when [n], which means “I” (so one uses it a lot) is attached to a verb root beginning with a [t] or a [k]. Suddenly the [t] or [k] disappear and you pronounce something that sounds like saying [n] and [h] at the same time, with the air from the [h] coming out of your nose instead of out of your mouth. It feels almost like you are sneezing. The closest we have to this in English is the sound some people might use to imitate the sound that pig makes, for which we do have a descriptive verb: snuffle. So while it is quite easy for me to say “you cook”: u-teka (you – cook), it is a different story when I try to say “I cook”: n-h-eka which sounds like (pig snuffle)+eka.
The most notable thing about my enthusiasm for Kinyarwanda pronunciation is that, in my youth, as a Bantuist, I was not particularly enchanted with the subfield of linguistics that studies sound systems. I was much more excited about Bantu word structure than about Bantu sound systems. And while Kinyarwanda also has taken Bantu word structure to even greater heights than I could have imagined in my wildest dreams, I remain amused daily, as I snuffle through my efforts to speak Kinyarwanda, by the arrogance of my youth. Apparently it IS possible to teach an old dog new tricks, or in this case, new appreciations.
I didn’t know what I was missing until I met this elegant language! Now, not only do I get to explore daily the complex system of word formation for which Bantu languages are known, I encounter on a daily basis sound combinations that I cannot pronounce with any verbal dexterity! For those of you who know me, you will be bemused that I am tongue-tied most of the time. But I am not deterred: I am as determined to get my tongue untwisted as I am to get the pieces of the words lined up in the right order, all so that I might be able to say something to someone else one day that they might be able to understand!
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