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reflections on language

George Carlin used to joke that language always gives us away. We won’t get into his bigger-dick foreign policy theory, but he was pretty spot on in describing American English as a language of euphemisms. Ours is a language adept at masking reality, one that is filled with anodyne words that cloak harsh or uncomfortable truths. Language is a reflection of culture, so it should come as no surprise that a culture in which euphemisms thrive produces political leaders who brazenly lie to the public and offer noncommittal langauge (“that was not inteded to be a factual statement”) by way of apology when they are caught.

One of the things we have always enjoyed about language study are the unexpected glimpses language offers into the culture that molded it. In Spanish, for example, one is never at fault. Inanimate objects acquire volition and become lost, broken, or forgotten, but the person to whom these things happen is never the subject of the sentence. Unlike Americans, for whom time is money, Spanish speakers have a much more casual and comfortable relationship with time. A culture that values its siestas would never attach a monetary connotation to the ticking of a clock, so in Spanish time is passed instead of being spent.

As he has become more familiar with Swahili, D has also come across similar linguistic quirks. For instance, there are two different words for marriage – one for men, and another for women. In fact, the verb is the same. It’s just that men use the active form of it, while for women the verb is in its passive form. Men marry; women get married. The same, incidentally, is true in Russian, even though dowries long ago ceased being the custom there. In Kenya, on the other hand, it is still common practice for a man to pay a bride price, usually in the form of cows or goats, to his bride’s father.

Swahili is an oral language that at times has an uncomfortable relationship with modernity. In many cases, it borrows English or Arabic words to describe concepts (i.e. technology, business) that were foreign to the language’s creators. In other instances, it adapts indigenous words in confusing ways. For example, noon in Swahili is 6 o’clock because time-telling follows the arc of the sun and the first hour of the day is 7am, the first hour after sunrise.

As an oral language, Swahili is also overflowing with adages and proverbs. When a word wouldn’t occur to D right away, he would ask his teacher to wait while he tried to recall it, which usually elicited a Swahili saying that waiting hurts the intestines. When she asked him to wait one time and he responded with the same saying, she offered another in retort – waiting attracts blessing and happiness.

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