Travelling taboos

One of the nicest side effects of having this blog is that it creates a dialogue with readers, who point out things that are beyond the scope of my expertise and regional interest (and also, capacity, given the sheer number and exuberant diversity of African languages!). When I wrote my first post on taboo words, focusing on a number of West African languages, which I later followed up with this post on euphemisms in Songhay, I got a very helpful comment. My colleague Stefano Manfredi shared an article on taboo words in Kinubi with me. This Arabic-based creole close to Juba Arabic is spoken by the descendants of East African soldiers originating from Southern Sudan and recruited by the British at the end of the 19th century.

Today, most Nubi speakers or Nubis (NOT Nubians) live in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and their language has many affinities with English, Arabic and Swahili. It is therefore not surprising that Xavier Luffin turns first and foremost to the latter two languages as possible sources for widespread taboos, including some that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog:

Debila, the word for ‘snake’ is only used at daytime, never during the night, when it has to be paraphrased with labil-lata – literally ‘rope on the soil. The word for ‘needle’ – libra – can also not be uttered in the dark. And never ask for mile ‘salt’ at night, demand sukar-mula ‘meal’s sugar’ instead! Luffin explores similar taboos in Chadic Arabic, and in other languages of the area, such as Fadija Nubian, where not only similar interdictions are attested, but where they are also given similar motivations – saying the name of a snake at night is seen as inviting it into the house. He also mentions similar beliefs in Swahili, something for another instalment in this series.

But as the previous posts on West African languages have shown, these taboos are shared across much larger geographical areas, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and across the Sahara. Their distribution and local flavours would make a great topic for an in-depth study!

To read more on taboos in Kinubi, consult this article:

Luffin, Xavier. 2002. Language taboos in Kinubi: a comparison with Sudanese and Swahili cultures. Africa: Rivista trimestrale di studi e documentazione dell’Istituto italiano perl’Africa e l’Oriente, Anno 57, No. 3 (Settembre 2002), pp. 356-367

Reifications and fluidity: English, Swahili and everything in between

Africa is not a country, and I would normally refrain from straying into geographical areas of this continent that are far from my comfort zone. (And note that the areas of specialisation that are prescribed for Africanists from the global North and taken on by them are already huge and would not be permissible for disciplines focusing on other areas of the world, nor are similarly broad perspectives accorded to Africans, who too often are still regarded as credible experts of their local experience only. But this is a subject for a different blog post altogether…)

But today I’m inspired by my colleague Chege Githiora’s new book on Sheng that we will launch tonight at SOAS, so let me leave West Africa behind and extend my gaze to the shores of the Indian Ocean for once.

When we talk about African languages, there is often an assumption that these languages, indigenous languages, stand in contrast with colonial languages – the European languages of the colonial powers that until today remain the official languages of the vast majority of African countries. Yet, many of the languages and associated groups that we know as African languages and ethnic groups are a product of colonisation. Missionaries and colonial administrators imposed the ethnonationalist language ideas that were en vogue in Europe at the time to African settings organised around very different principles, and Africans interact(ed) with these ideas in many different ways. But the big standard languages that we can name and that are taught in formal settings (including universities in the global North) are all colonial creations. Standard Swahili, for example, was born in 1928 at a conference in Mombasa, with the Zanzibar variety serving as the basis for this new norm. Standard Swahili is thus as colonial as Standard English, and both are used for social selection in the education system.

Kenyans and East Africans, however, have their very creative strategies of bypassing these standards, and one of them is Sheng. While the name for this register suggests that it is a mixed code composed of Swahili and English, in reality it is much more inclusive and open to the incorporation of forms from its speakers diverse repertoires. Have a look at this sentence, its equivalent in Standard Swahili, and its English translation (all from Githiora 2018: 97):

Kenyan Swahili/Sheng: Mathrii ya first ilikuwa kirai.
Standard Swahili: Gari la kwanza la abiria lilikuwa tupu.
‘The first matatu was empty.’

The Sheng utterance does not only contain forms that can be identified as belonging to Swahili and English, it also includes the word kirai, from Gikuyu. This is the beauty of Sheng – it allows multilingual Kenyans to flavour and bend it according to their individual needs, breaking down barriers created by impenetrable standard registers. Registers like Sheng (and its mirror register Engsh – English mixed with Swahili) are often highlighted as ‘mixed’ and ‘hybrid’, in contrast to their standard counterparts. But if you have a closer look at the Standard Swahili sentence and the English translation, you can see that mixing is not confined to Sheng – matatu in the English translation is the word for a privately owned minibus; gari in the Standard Swahili utterance comes from English ‘car’. Multilingualism and mixing are thus in the eye of the beholder and a matter of degree.

The main difference between standard registers and so-called ‘mixed’ registers is the greater resistance to variation and mixing in the former and the openness to fluidity in the latter, where it can even be seen as a central design principle. This is why it is not possible to ‘standardise’ Sheng and other ‘mixed’ registers to use them in schools where language education is based on introducing, enforcing and assessing norms, and why they thrive in the shadow of regulated language spaces.

Read more about Sheng in Chege Githiora’s new book:

Githiora, Chege. 2018. Sheng: Rise of a Kenyan Swahili vernacular. Woodbridge: James Currey.