On the Politics of Language

By Mark Nicholson


George Bernard Shaw once wrote that England and the USA were “two countries divided by a common tongue”. But what happens when one country is divided by two languages? The classic case is Belgium, where French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings have always entertained a deep mutual distrust. Bill Bryson wrote in his travel book Neither Here nor There that the only thing that holds the two linguistic communities together is “an even deeper disdain” for their respective neighbours, the French and the Dutch.

The equivalent in Africa is probably Cameroon, which always seems to be on the verge of civil war between the Anglophones in the west and the Francophones in the rest of the country. The need for a lingua franca in a country like Cameroon, where there are around 250 local languages, is obvious. The problem in that country is that only 10% of the people speak both languages and nearly 30% are illiterate in both. You do not have to look far back into colonial history to find other examples. The Boer-Engels wars in southern Africa at the end of the 19th century resulted from a clash of two European cultures, one English-speaking, the other Afrikaans-speaking. The Pyrrhic victory won by the British led to the eventual dominance of the Afrikaans language. As a foreigner in South Africa, my youngest daughter is legally obliged to learn either Afrikaans or Zulu at school, whether she wants to or not (and she doesn’t: she would far rather learn Mandarin or Spanish).


In East Africa, Swahili is an Arabic language which arose from the Omani conquest of the coast. At least 75% of Swahili has Arabic roots, such as the word safari (للسفر - lil’safar, to journey). The remainder consists of English loan words such as soksi, shirti and benki, or vernacular expressions such as the Bantu word for meat, (i)nyama, which is the same in Zulu and Setswana 3,000 kilometres to the south.


The Tanzanians have a saying: “Swahili was born in Tanzania, got sick in Kenya and died in Uganda.” There is a certain amount of truth in this, but also a lot of irony. (Ki)Swahili (the ki- prefix denoting a language) evolved as a lingua franca in East Africa, which had, and still has, hundreds of languages. It has existed since the Omanis colonised Zanzibar around three hundred years before Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika and before that, German East Africa) came into being. The revered first President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, wanted to assert Tanzania’s independence from Britain by declaring Swahili the sole lingua franca*. The fact that it was the language of the slave traders seems to have been lost on Nyerere: clearly, the only thing worse than slave-trading Arabs was a recent European colonising nation. Economically, however, it was a disastrous decision: children learned Swahili at school but when they went to university, the lectures were in English, a language of which they had only the most basic understanding. In recent years, Tanzania used to recruit English teachers from Kenya until the late President Mwagafuli sent them packing – mainly, I think, out of jealousy. Following his premature death from Covid in 2021, the new President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, has brought back more enlightened policies. The reason Swahili is not spoken in Uganda is that it was the language of Idi Amin and his tribe, who brutalised so many other Ugandans. Today, English and Luganda are the main languages spoken there.


Over the last few days, I have driven a thousand kilometres from Nairobi south into Tanzania. The change in languages over even quite short distances is interesting. Nairobi has three main languages: English, up-country Swahili, and Sheng, a fast-evolving language of the young that mixes English, Swahili slang and some local vernacular. There is a national newspaper written in standardised Swahili but it has very low circulation (10%), and is mainly read at the coast. English newspapers have ten times that readership. Proper Swahili, used for broadcasting national news programmes, is moderately well understood in up-country Kenya, but it is not widely spoken. Syntax and grammar in Kenyan Swahili are poor. In correct Swahili, all nouns belong to one of eight ‘classes’, each of which requires agreement from both adjectives and verbs, but these rules are generally ignored in up-country Kenya. Likewise, Kenyan Swahili will use loan words: for example, email is ‘email’ in Kenyan Swahili but in Tanzania, it is called barua pepe (“a letter in the wind”).


What is noticeable these days in Kenya is the gradual shift in the language of choice. In the country club of which I am a member, the staff would formerly use Swahili and the members would try to answer in Swahili. Half a century later, the membership is 75% African, largely from the dominant and wealthy Gikuyu tribe. At weekends, their children gather around the pool. The language spoken between mothers and their children is usually English; the vernacular may occasionally be heard, but Swahili much less. The children go to expensive private schools (sometimes overseas) and they tend to use English. Further down the social scale, sheng, the new language of the urban young is increasingly common. So it is the language, rather than the dialect, that has become the class denominator and one needs to be sensitive about the language one uses to address strangers.


Last Saturday our team drove from Nairobi to the town of Voi in a very dry part of south-east Kenya. There, one is more likely to hear the ‘correct’ Swahili of the coastal people**. This Kiswahili sanifu is a rich, complex and beautiful coastal language that is rarely spoken in up-country Kenya. Fifty years ago, coastal Swahili was written in Arabic script but today it is written using the Roman alphabet.


After leaving Voi, we climbed 5000ft (1500m) to a small forest in the Taita Hills. That evening, we went for dinner in a restaurant in Wundanyi, the county capital. We feasted on beef stew, ugali (the staple maize porridge of Kenya) and managu (black nightshade), a delicious vegetable closely related to deadly nightshade, but without the less desirable side effects of the latter***. The restaurant was packed with football fans there to watch the English FA Cup Final on TV. Supporters of both teams were present, though it was difficult to ascertain the basis of their affiliation. When I chatted to some fans, it was clear that nobody was quite sure where either Chelsea or Liverpool were situated but it was a noisy, rowdy and happy 90 minutes. The language spoken in Wundanyi was almost entirely the vernacular, kitaita. The next day we continued 100 kilometres east to the Tanzanian border. On the Kenyan side, they have a different language, kitaveta. Yet as soon as I crossed the border, I (as an elder) was greeted with Shikamoo (traditionally meaning “Let me grasp your ankles”), a term of great respect for the elderly, to which one automatically responds Marahaba (“Of course, please, go ahead”). Since then we have heard nothing but the highest quality Swahili, which tends to make my fellow Kenyans and me very reluctant to open our mouths.


Fifteen hundred kilometres to the north in Ethiopia, there is a similar linguistic issue based much more on tribal affiliation. For centuries, the Amhara have been the dominant tribe. The national language and lingua franca is Amharic (አማርኛ) with its unique script derived from the ancient Ge’ez. There are 231 letters in the ‘alphabet’, as the seven vowels are each attached to the letters. The northerners speak a related language, Tigrigna, and the Tigray people have been fighting the central government for several years. The largest ethnic group is the Oromo from the south. They have long felt marginalised and are now trying to reclaim the capital Addis Ababa, which they claim was stolen from them by the Amhara. As one journeys south in Ethiopia, the signs are being changed from the Amharic script into Roman, a sad sign of the times. We have even had the uncomfortable experience of Oromos refusing to speak Amharic to my Amhara wife.


I always feel sorry that Esperanto never made it as a global language. Would it not be much easier if every human being spoke one international language that everyone understood? The problem is that a strong centripetal force drives all languages. The English upper-class accents and clipped phrasing typified by such one-time icons of Alvar Lidell, the BBC’s wartime radio announcer, or his contemporary, the British-born American journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke, are no longer heard these days. If you listen to recordings of Woodrow Wilson or Theodore Roosevelt, it is difficult to detect a US accent. Regional dialects are now de rigeur, and why not, as long as they are understood by all? The problem is often that they are not. A few weeks ago, I was with some Kenyan soccer enthusiasts listening to the BBC sports programme. The commentator was a well-known female soccer player, who grew up in London and has a pronounced local accent. The Kenyans I was with complained that they could hardly understand a word she was saying.


Meanwhile language remains a political weapon. In Kenya, the way Swahili is spoken denotes one’s tribe, so one’s accent can give away one’s origins, which may be dangerous at times of political or tribal tension. However, it will be a sad day if European languages ever replace the ancient tribal languages of Africa.

* In Kenya, both English and Swahili are official languages.


** The Swahili is also the name given to the miscegenation between Omani Arabs and the original coastal tribes.


*** The bill for the five of us, including drinks, was £9.73, somewhat cheaper than a London restaurant.

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