East Africa is one of, if not the most, polyglot regions in the world. There more than 100 languages still in use in Tanzania alone, and unlike traditional languages in many parts of the world these languages are still used every day in homes. Most Tanzanians learn to speak one of these languages before they learn Swahili.
Swahili is the common language of East Africa, and the official “cultural language” of Tanzania (English is the official “technical language”). As a common tongue meant to be spoken by all it is, thankfully, surprisingly easy to learn.
Any anglo-Canadian who has tried to memorize conjugation schemes for dozens of French verbs will appreciate the shockingly straightforward scheme for conjugating Swahili verbs. Conjugation is how a language includes information about who is performing an action and when it is being performed. In English, we say “I HAVE fun,” and “you HAVE fun,” but “she HAS fun.” That’s conjugation. Each verb in Swahili is conjugated by adding two prefixes: one which indicates who is performing the action, and one which indicates when it is being performed.
The first prefix indicates the “who.” The ‘ni-‘ prefix indicates that “I” am performing the action. “U” (pronouced like the “ooooh” you make when you see fireworks) indicates “you,” and “a” indicates “he or she.” The second prefix indicates “when.” “Na” is “now.” “Ni” is the past, and “Ta” is the future.
So, for example, to say “I love Swahili,”
Ni (I) + na (now) + penda (the verb for loving/liking) = ninapenda
To say “You will love Swahili,”
U (you) + ta (future) + penda = utapenda
Easy! Every Swahili verb is conjugated with these same simple rules. There are only two irregular verbs (“to be” and “to have”), and the rules for these are dead simple (“to be” is always just “ni”, and “to have” is always “na”). One other fun fact about Swahili is that, since every conjugated verb has all the information about who is performing the action, we don’t always have to actually include that information in our sentences (Spanish does this same trick). So, while in English we would have to say:
“I love Swahili.”
We don’t have to say:
“Meme (I) ninapenda Swahili.”
We can just say:
More Swahili lessons may follow as we find people who can explain it to us! Special thanks to the Peace Corps volunteer who solved the mystery of why sometimes “I” sounds like “nina” and sometimes like “nini.”
Just for fun, we have added a few pictures from one of our many Dala Dala rides. This particular time there were 29 people squished into that van… there is no such thing as no room in this country!