Kiswahili is not a killer but enabler of other languages

Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i (left) and former Tanzania First Lady Mama Salma Kikwete during the launch of 'Kamusi Kuu ya Kiswahili' at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Sub-Saharan African countries are multilingual and multicultural, to an extent that is not seen anywhere in the world.
  • Cameroon, for example, with a population of about 26.5 million people, has over 250 languages.

Prof Austin Bukenya’s article, ‘Kiswahili as a “killer language” is an argument against myself’ (Saturday Nation November 7,2020) revisited the complex and unending debate about language within and without East Africa and the place of Kiswahili vis-a-vis other local and international languages.

The writer’s ‘argument against himself’ emanated from a Facebook debate that was ignited by sentiments by Prof David Crystal, who described Kiswahili as a ‘killer language’. Prof Bukenya noted that the emotive phrase is not original to Prof Crystal, arguably one of the most respected linguistics scholars – but rather, the phrase was originally coined by Ann Pakir of Singapore University. In context, the phrase clearly captures the picture of multilingual situations whereby one dominant language may threaten to eclipse other languages.

Sub-Saharan African countries are multilingual and multicultural, to an extent that is not seen anywhere in the world. With 53 countries, Africa has the highest number of nation-states. Compared with other parts of the world, African countries have small populations that are made up of very many language groups. Cameroon, for example, with a population of about 26.5 million people, has over 250 languages.

The Facebook conversation between Prof Bukenya and other scholars brought to the fore a myriad views about (dominant) Kiswahili (sanifu) language and how it relates with other languages. According to Bukenya, Prof Peter Karanja (Kenyatta University) avers: “The first casualty of Kiswahili is its dialects, courtesy of the scholarly and ‘standard Kiswahili’ (Kiswahili sanifu).”

Medium of communication

Another view as propounded by the discussion is: “The competition between Kiswahili and other languages is a natural and inevitable process.” Prof Bukenya expounds that Kiswahili needs intentional support to fulfill its role as a medium of communication.

All these observations seem to have put Prof Bukenya in a dilemma. “Which approach should be adopted in promoting Kiswahili in Uganda, where my own language – Luganda – is dominant?” he posed.

I would like to unpack and deconstruct the arguments propounded above.

First, Prof Karanja’s hypothesis – which he developed into a PhD thesis –that Kiswahili is endangered largely by itself, has counter-arguments. Kiswahili has about 15 dialects that are spoken in Eastern Africa. The dialects include: Kiunguja (Zanzibar), Kimakunduchi (or Kihadimu) and Kitumbatu (spoken in rural parts of Zanzibar), Kipemba (Pemba island); Kimtang'ata (Tanga); Kimrima (Coast of Tanzania) and Kimgao (Kilwa).

Others are Kimvita, Kingare and Kijomvu (Mombasa island and environs); Kiamu, Kisiu, Kipate, Kibarawa (Kimiini), and Kitikuu (along the coast of northern Kenya into southern Somalia), Kivumba and Chichifundi (Wasini and Vanga), Kingwana (DRC and Congo) and Kingozi (original Kiswahili).

Kiunguja was selected by missionaries to be the basis of standardising Kiswahili. In his book, Historia ya Usanifishaji wa Kiswahili (2007), Prof Ireri Mbaabu explains why Kiunguja outcompeted Kimvita.

One major reason of favouring Kiunguja over Kimvita and other dialects was that it was widely used in trade and had a substantial amount of written corpus. Scholars such as Abdalla Khalid in The Liberation of Swahili from European Appropriation – argue that Kiswahili should be re-standardised using Kimvita. Standard Kiswahili embodies and reflects all the other remaining dialects. In any case, Prof Karanja is alive to the fact that dialects of any language are mutually intelligible, differing only in certain phonological and lexical features.

It is also almost impossible to develop all dialects to reach the level of standard of Kiswahili sanifu. Rather than argue that Kiswahili sanifu is an ‘oppressor’ of other languages and its own dialects, Prof Karanja should also note that Kisanifu largely relies on its dialects and other languages to enrich and expand its lexicon.

Sheikh Ahmad Nabhany gives an example of four denotative descriptions of ‘finger’ in four dialects of Kiswahili, namely: kidole (Kiunguja), chanda (Kimvita), kijaa (Kiamu) and kinwe (Kitikuu). Infact, scholars such as Prof Rocha Chimerah see Kiswahili sanifu as one of the ‘youngest’ Kiswahili dialects.

Also, Mwalimu Karanja’s study only focused on two dialects – Kiamu and Kimvita – to come to a conclusion that “Kiswahili dialects are threatened with extinction not only, ironically, by the onslaught of standard Kiswahili, but also from other dominant languages such as English and emerging social dialects such as Sheng.”

Second, I agree with the view that the competition between Kiswahili and other languages is a natural and inevitable process. In this century, languages are more than just tools of communication. Languages are gradually being put in the same league of natural resources such as forests, oil, technological software, minerals and so on.

World languages

Languages are now being commoditised and ‘sold’ to earn some income for individuals, companies and countries. The geopolitics of languages has seen major world languages being developed intentionally to push certain global agendas and interests. The Germans have Goethe Institute to champion the interests of German while the French have Alliance Francais.

In East Africa, a major regional rival to English is Kiswahili. In Tanzania, which has more than 100 languages, English has lost some ground to Kiswahili. In Kenya, both Kiswahili (sanifu) and English have gained at the expense of ethnic languages. In Rwanda and DR Congo, both English and Kiswahili are gaining at the expense of the French.

Despite Kiswahili’s gain at the expense of other local languages, it can be argued that it is due to its ‘trans-ethnic’ nature. Kiswahili has been touted by scholars such as Ali Mazrui to be a suitable language in ‘detribalizing’ East Africans.

Prof Rocha Chimerah writes: “Against all odds, Kiswahili has made tremendous strides over the period between the first half of 18th Century and this Century. The result of its impressive expansion as an inter-ethnic lingua franca is that it has reached its present eminence as the most widely spoken language in Africa trans-nationally, with the probable exception of Arabic.”

Therefore, instead of worrying about Kiswahili ‘suffocating’ other local languages’, we should celebrate the fact that it represents the interests of other smaller languages in the league of major global languages such as English and French.

Finally, on Prof Bukenya’s dilemma about Kiswahili vis a vis Luganda – and which approach should be adopted in promoting Kiswahili in Uganda where the latter is predominantly used, I would suggest a multipronged approach.

One, Ugandans should debunk the myth of linking Kiswahili with the soldiers. During Idi Amin’s presidency, Kiswahili was associated with brutality. Two, Uganda is moving towards the right direction by forming Baraza la Kiswahili la Uganda (Kiswahili Language Council of Uganda). Lastly, Kiswahili should be seen not as a competitor of Luganda but an enabler of the latter.


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