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Verbs in Kiswahili Made Me Think Differently About Language

August 2, 2018

Haley Millet with teachers and classmates
Haley Millet (second from right) with teachers (left and center) and two friends from the Swahili program.

I love this type of verbiage because it sort of suggests a view of the world that assumes all things bend towards beauty in their natural state.

Haley Millet, a graduate student in Global Health and Global Studies FLAS Fellow in Swahili, writes from Tanzania:

University of Dar Es Salaam campus

University of Dar Es Salaam campus. Credit: Haley Millet

“Last Friday, I completed my Kiswahili course at the University of Dar es Salaam. Every day for the last six weeks I went to class for four hours to study intermediate Kiswahili with my two teachers, Mohamed and Kindole. I happened to be the only student in the class so we got to know each other pretty well. While this made for the student-teacher ratio your mom always dreamed of, it also made for a pretty intensive study.

​By the end I was analyzing Kiswahili poems and writing literary essays in Kiswahili.  Every morning for the last week or so I was sucked into a wormhole and spit out inside my senior high school English class, except not a single thing was happening in English.  The time warp was definitely worth it and I learned a lot and I am so thankful to my teachers. Some of what I learned was actual Kiswahili, and some of it was realizations about language in general.

Right now, I have the impression that Kiswahili is a really verb-centric language. Ideas are expressed in a way that hinges not on the nouns but rather what the nouns are doing, even if the noun is a rock. Verbs in Kiswahili are so rich that you can say in one verb what it takes five different words to say in English. For example, anawasimulia means she is telling them a story. There are 21 different affixes and suffixes that you can stick onto verbs in various places to make your nouns do various things, and those are just the ones I’ve learned so far.

Studying a language like this has made me feel like English is pretty noun-centric, especially because we have so many adjectives to describe those nouns. In English we have many adjectives for a noun that appears to be goodgreat, wonderful, excellent, smart, beautiful, handsome, admirable, etc. In Kiswahili there’s pretty much just one main adjective people use for that, and that is nzuri. Your smart child is mtoto mzuri, your sister’s beautiful eyes are macho mazuri, and that ornate building over there is jengo nzuri.

The oldest building in Dar Es Salaam, flanked by modern skyscrapers

The oldest building in Dar Es Salaam, flanked by modern skyscrapers. Credit: Haley Millet

While people use nzuri a lot, it’s not like they’re walking around throwing out nzuri’s like Frangos in a Macy’s Day Parade at every good thing they see. Many times, Swahili speakers use verbs to unfurl the sentiments that English speakers capture in adjectives. When you unpack them, these verbal descriptions of nouns are super vivid and paint deep imagery.

Because while that ornate building over there can be jengo nzuri, it can also be jengo imejengwa ikajengeka – the building that was built as though it built itself. This is a common way to describe something that is beyond good. An incredibly beautiful woman can be described as mwanawake ameundwa akaundika – the woman that was created as though she created herself. I love this type of verbiage because it sort of suggests a view of the world that assumes all things bend towards beauty in their natural state. And I’d like to live with those lenses on. It’s literally like saying, “If that woman was God, she would have created herself on earth in exactly the way she is now.”

Haley also received an Academic Year 2017-18 FLAS Fellowship, which she used to study global health and Swahili at UW.  For the remainder of this summer, Haley will be using her Kiswahili skills to work as a health implementation partner with Faith in Action Tanzania, a local non-profit in Dar Es Salaam which aims to address social and behavorial determinants of health for vulnerable populations.

FLAS Fellowships are funded by the International and Foreign Language Education Office of the U.S. Department of Education. FLAS fellowships support undergraduate, graduate and professional students in acquiring modern foreign languages and area or international studies competencies. Students from all UW departments and professional schools are encouraged to apply. Find out more about the FLAS Fellowship here.