Friday, June 15, 2007


A very sharp email turned up in my inbox today. My brother is getting a PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago and he points out a rather profound blunder of mine:

Hey Ellen,

Just read your blog from Tanzania. Fascinating stuff. I was kind of struck by one entry, though. The bit about Kiswahili lacking adjectives to describe frustration and confusion seems like the kind of statement that could use additional explanation and context.

For one thing, you'll note that English also lacks adjectives for the very emotions you named: confusion and frustration are nouns. (And "confused" and "frustrated" are, arguably, participles rather than pure adjectives.) But more importantly, according to an online Kiswahili dictionary, there are at least ten words that can be used to denote confusion with various nuances.

Most of all, though, the idea that any language lacks the capacity to express particular emotional states that can be expressed by another language is a really, really controversial topic, and one that people take pretty seriously as you can probably imagine. It's kind of like the legend about how that Inuits have hundreds of words for snow (rather than the 4 to 7 or so that they actually have), except even more problematic and tense because it calls into question whether some
languages are deficient for describing universal human emotions, or whether some emotions aren't actually universal at all.

Suppose, for instance, that I were to tell you that there are no words in English for the words Russians use to describe common emotional states. How could such a claim ever be proven or disproven? Russians use the word "gordost'", and English speakers use the word "pride", but since we're talking about emotional states rather than external objects in the world that you can point to, how could you ever conclusively
demonstrate that the two words mean the same thing? We'd be left arguing about whether or not this is a failure of language or a failure of emotion... and either way, one language-community claims that the other is failing at something deeply personal and subjective: the experience and expression of emotion.

So ultimately these sorts of claims tell you more about the claim-maker than the languages in question. So I would want to know: who told you this and under what contexts?


Well, as a matter of fact, it was told to me by a Peace Corps volunteer who has been living in Bukoba for almost 2 years. I accepted it without question as it excused some of my failings as a reporter. To believe it means I'm off the hook. It's ok that I don't understand, because it's not *my* failure, but rather it is a failure of the language, I would have liked to believe. It was a convienance to believe it and I am sure it speaks to the confusion and frustration that both I and this Peace Corps volunteer felt.

Brian is good to so articulately express why this is likely to be a totally bogus I thought I'd pass it on.


Kamugisha A.W. said...

Your brother Brian was quite right.

I happen to be a Muhaya (Tanzanian from Kagera) who understands many European languages (English, French, Russian and German) after having taken some serious studies in specialized language training institutions in the respective countries of the languages concerned and yet sometimes may fail to get the correct words for some notions I can only express in Ruhaya (my mothertongue) or Kiswahili alone. For example the word "pole" in Kiswahili or "Mpola" in Ruhaya has no equivalent translation in the above named European languages I know.

You people must first make serious studies before making your statements about other languages. I cannot imagine a peacorps volunteer (trained in some other field) becoming a linguist and "expert" in any language of a country he has lived in for only two years (most probably in specialized environment eg a Primary or Secondary School).
I would like to suggest to you one source of serious knowledge about Africa:
If you want to know something about the richness of African languages, ask some well-meaning European 19th Missionaries (if you can find them still alive). Those people who came to Africa and remained for long periods in particular locations (some for the biggest part of their lives), made serious studies of the languages of the regions in which they stayed and some made translation of The Bible and other religious books from Latin into these languages. (These people may have some grounds to boast about their knowledge of a locality and its people and their culture including their language, although their knowledge may also not be quite complete)

Kamugisha A.W. Byabato
Dortmund University, Germany

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megan said...

thank you Mr. Byabato and Brian for your eloquent and true statements.

I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania from 2004-2008 and I completely agree with you. While we do our best to learn the culture and the language, we are by no means experts. While I have reached the point where I feel comfortable conversing and writing in Swahili, I recognize that I am by no means a linguist.

It saddens me though, that the only representation of Peace Corps Volunteers in your column is of our ignorance. As is the case with all humans, some are more ignorant than others and the statement that the PCV made should not have been made. I would like to think that it does not represent the whole of us.

P.S. thanks for your article on the Tanzanian Laughing Epidemic, I am writing a paper for my abnormal psychology class on Mass Psychogenic Disorders and it has been both helpful and interesting to read/listen to.


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