Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Surprising Phenomenon of Linguistic Protectionism

As part of his new work at Tanzania, the author is attending weekly one-on-one classes to master the local lingua franca that is Swahili.  Despite English being the working business language as well as the main language of instruction in local schools secondary and above, to work with people with less than adequate amount of formal education (i.e. the farmers, the organization's main clientele), being able to communicate and comprehend at least some of Swahili (as well as the local tribal language of Kihehe) is almost a requirement to succeed.

But in his effort to rapidly catch on a foreign language, the author is surprised by how "foreign" the language is.  That is, the Swahili language, despite supposed influence from many foreign languages in the past centuries due to Tanzania's colonization by Arabs, Germans, and the British, show little signs of heavy interaction with the languages of former colonial masters.  If anything, the amount of loanwords from Arabic and English is pretty much minuscule, giving little leverage for the author to utilize his knowledge of other languages to memorize Swahili words.

What is especially impressive about Swahili's lack of foreign loanwords is how even exceptionally modern conceptual words are assigned native Swahili words, whereas the English loanword equivalent has been widespread across large numbers of world languages.  One fine example is the word for "entrepreneurship," something that did not really widespread in everyday lingo until about a decade ago.  Yet, the Swahili language has quickly adapted existing word from tradition to suit a brand-new concept that many in these rural areas may still find completely foreign.

It is difficult to explain why some languages tend to borrow more than others.  Throughout history, exchange of information means that new products and ideas enter a particular culture frequently, through direct contacts with foreigners.  This causes words with similar pronunciations and spellings to enter multiple languages.  Yet, Bantu languages like Swahili seem to be the exception to the rule.  Their vocabulary remains distinct despite their roles as official political and business languages being superseded by Europeans imports like English, French, and Portuguese.

The author tend to speculate that globalization can only be truly attained through customized localization.  Perhaps ideas brought to Swahili lands by foreigners simply did not resonate with locals in ways that allow locals to easily adopt them into daily lives.  Instead, the ideas, if accepted by locals, had to change so much to fit local ideologies and lifestyles that continuing the use of the original foreign-sounding names may have been absurd in itself.  The locals probably figured that it makes more sense to borrow within the language for similar concepts or create entirely new terms.

Or maybe these foreign concepts did not touch enough of the local populations to make lasting impacts.  After seeing some of the rural villages where clients reside, the author is more or less convinced that the villagers have lived the same lifestyles for generations.  Only certain signs of modernity, most notably cellphone and sodas, have entered popular use, while what people would consider basic necessities in more developed parts of the world, like electricity and motorized transport, are patchy in their coverage.

If foreign things, with their obvious utility, does not spread beyond towns, then it is highly conceivable that foreign ideas, which require some intellectual capacity and open-mindedness to comprehend, would have even tougher time being established in their rural areas.  As such, if the foreign loanwords for these ideas did indeed enter the Swahili lexicon, they may only exist within a small circle of local elites that have had extensive, cross-generational contacts with foreigners and all the things foreigners brought to Tanzania.

At the end of the day, such conclusion may imply that any attempt to bring new ideas into Swahili lands have been failures in the past, most likely due to the lack of extensiveness and localization associated with the process.  Sure, it could be possible that locals absorbed the ideas well, but if that is the case, those ideas, such as the case of "entrepreneurship," has not been taken seriously enough to be forces that develop the local society, either socially or economically.  If that is the case, then foreigners still has much to do, if just to maximize the beneficial impacts of those foreign ideas.

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