Youths aren’t annihilating Swahili

November 2, 2016

One of the greatest Swahili writers is the late Shaaban Bin Roberts, a Tanga native, who lamented the unchecked spread of corrupt Swahili and the effect of non Tanzanians usage is one that’s perennially lamented especially Kenyans, Ugandans, Zambians, Malawians and Congolese. But could it be true that 54 years since the death of Shaaban bin Robert one of the greatest poet and essayist who advocated the preservation of Tanzanian Swahili traditions, that even Tanzanian youngsters are really ruining the Swahili language? First of all, nobody’s ruining the Swahili language.And for anyone to call Swahili “our” language is repugnantly colonial. Language spreads and language changes.Swahili is spoken across the African continent by more people as a first, second or foreign language than any other language apart from Arabic.The United Republic of Tanzania has about 45% of the world’s native speakers of Swahili, Kenya has almost 25%.The language has many different and distinct “standard” or “official” varieties Standard Tanzania, Standard Pemba, Standard Congo, Standard Unguja and innumerable non-standard varieties and pidgins.Some of these non-standard varieties are spoken include Sheng’ in urban areas in Kenya, Wazaramo Swahili in Coastal Tanzania, Mombasa Swa in Kenyan coast and differ far more from Standard Tanzania than does Standard Kenyan. The phonology which is the sound pattern, including pronunciation of some prestige varieties of Wazaramo Swahili differs greatly from Standard Tanzanian, so that much of it needs subtitles in order to be understood by speakers of ordinary standard Swahili around the country and in the region.Let’s suppose for a moment that there was such a thing as “ruining” Swahili language.The notion of “ruining” implies changing in unacceptable ways. Languages do change despite all attempts to the contrary, or to constrain their change.The further implication of “ruin” is that the change is necessarily negative.Presumably it threatens the capacity of the language to express something be that complex thought, heightened emotion, refined argument. Or that it somehow threatens the integrity of the speech community, which as we have seen was never integrated in the first place.

Shaaban Bin Robert
Shaaban Bin Robert

As someone who understand basic Swahili language, what I want to look at is who is doing the changing or the ruining, depending on people’s perspective.I’m going to use examples from Shaaban Bin Robert to illustrate a lot of these, partly because it’s the best known source of early Modern Swahili, the language East Africans speak today, but also because for many, Shaaban Bin Roberts represents a sort of pinnacle of Swahili language usage.Shaaban Bin Robert is not generally considered as someone who would “ruin” the language. On the contrary he is generally regarded not entirely accurately as someone who enhanced the expressive force and prestige of Swahili in both Tanzania and Kenya.Standard Tanzanian Swahili describes bibi as grandmother while in standard Kenyan Swahili the same word means wife.The difference is also illustrated in words like “naomba” which in Tanzania means request while in Kenyan perspective it means prayers.There are non-standard Swahili varieties, such as Mwalimu which in both Kenya and Tanzania means the same.But if you meet a Kenyan urban youth he uses the words like “Odijo” and for the Coastal town of Mombasa they are common referred to as “Wakufunzi” and that helps explain why learning Swahili isn’t a cakewalk since there are so many non-standard varieties.As far as ruining the Swahili language is concerned, there could be case made through erosion of comprehension.Where would the be if they had insisted on singing “I can’t get any satisfaction”?Of course, they were mimicking a blues style associated with African American linguistic behaviour – and they were also making use of a pattern which is found in all varieties of English up to and including early Modern English. From Shaaban Bin Robert’s perspective, it was clear that double negative has never meant anything in the unmarked languages cases, and there are many perfectly logical Swahili words which use the double negative as a matter of course in negation.Also, the logic applied it would imply that a double positive can never imply a negative. To which I say, yeah right.In any case the double negative is a red herring when it comes to making an argument that “Youths are ruining the language.” Double negatives are not accepted in Standard Tanzanian Swahili any more than they are in Standard Swahili. When it comes to non-standard varieties, non-standard varieties in Tanzania are as rife with double negatives as non-standard Swahili and a good example is that you can watch Ze Comedy show if you don’t believe me.We’re often told that a preposition is something you should never end a sentence with.See?In fact, this is as common in Tanzania as in Kenyan Swahili. Would you really say “Mathake?” Seriously? “Mamake?” is absolutely standard for all varieties of Swahili. The former is Sheng’ in Kenya and the latter is applicable in both Kenya and Tanzania Swahili standards.The former one is just silly.

Sheng’ is often used when wanting to remain ambiguous about the gender of a singular referent, or when the gender is unknown.For example, if you had just got off the phone I might ask you “Kasema nini?” This is appropriate even though it’s taken as given that you were speaking to only one person. I’d have to have a pole inserted very far into my sphincter indeed to ask “Aliye piga simu alitaka nini?” The former stands for what did caller say and the latter means what did your caller want. Furthermore, singular they has a long and illustrious Swahili history.You guessed it, Shaaban Bin Robert used it in his book Diwani Ya Shaaban 5 published in 1959 by Thomas Nelson Ltd on 597 Little Collins Street in Melbourne Australia a copy which I still have.There are some rare instances of where conversation of Swahili words is commonly found in Old Swahili, conversion became widespread in the Middle Swahili period between 1960s – 1980s and reached a zenith in the 1990s, since which time it has declined slightly. So the modern-day youths aren’t verbing nearly as much as Shaaban Bin Robert.I have several conclusions theories that its not youngsters who are to blame but the native Swahili speakers are ruining the language, for in each and every case the Kenyan situation represents an older form, and the Standard Tanzanian is actually the innovative, the newer form.The next possible conclusion is that the language started out ruined most ruinous in the age of Shaaban Bin Robert, and both Kenyan coastal and Tanzanian coastal people inherited this ruin, but that somehow modern Swahili saved the language from ruin.If this is true, it is still not true that the youths are ruining or have ruined the language as old speakers of the language want us to believe. It was still the Swahili natives who ruined it. And if you believe this one, I think you’ve got far more serious problems than worrying about Swahili language.The final view is of course that language changes, and that claims of ruin or otherwise have nothing to do with language, and everything to do with feelings of cultural superiority and bias.Many people in Zanzibar will never forgive the world for allowing the Swahili to spread and unadulterated Swahili speakers will certainly never forgive the adulterated Swahili speakers for being a more powerful than them in shaping the destiny of where the language is heading.Am one of those still struggling to perfect the language but overall see no way youths are ruining Swahili.

Contador Harrison