On the use of language in Kenya

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Me: How do I say ‘very’?


Me: I thought sana meant ‘many’?

‘Very, many, lots, more, all of the time...what was your question again?’

The essence of language is its elasticity. The English language is mutable; it is evolving, a living river that is constantly refuelled by streams that have their source in a vast array of places. There was no definitive point at which someone said — “Now here is English”. It’s not like a dinner, which when it’s done is done. It’s useful because every word was created at some stage, by someone, used until it was either thoroughly incorporated into lexicon, replaced by something better, or forgotten to all but purveyors of ancient historical texts.

And this is what makes communications work in Kenya — editing reports, writing articles, developing project work plans, producing information material – intriguing. And problematic for those with a different idea of how to use language.

English is one of the national languages of Kenya, but it’s not English quite as you and I know it. Rather, it is an intriguing mix of formal language, conservative words and phrases, Kenyan idioms, phrases translated through the sentence structure of Kiswahili or Kenyan mother tongue, and plain old English-as-a-second-language errors.

Whilst writing you need to reflect the knowledge of your audience. Whilst editing you need to respect the author’s style whilst ensuring the document is easily understandable to your audience, who will range from a rural Kenyan woman to a UK-based development partner. Editing must also strike a respectful balance between ensuring the information adequately conveys its meaning, and smoothing out the contextual creases whilst keeping the unique writing qualities of the author. This is not to say anything of the subtleties of respect, formality and emphasis that can potentially be mistaken for errors.

There’s no room for inflexibility with cross-cultural communications work. In writing, the creation of phrases that fit within this communications context is a much more accepted practice than in Australia, where the advent of phrases is derided as mere publicity or politicking tools, and the invention of new words as questionable attempts by the youth to subvert Our Hallowed Language.

2013-07-17 15.46.28 copyFor example, how do you feel about making up a word? I’ve made up a few in my time, if I can’t find one that quite fits, and tweaking something a little clarifies the definition. An American friend reacted in stunned, condescending horror when he edited an article in which I had included the perfectly reasonable word ‘uniquity’. His physical reaction was quite something. His main issue was how the intended reader, who he saw as the most important person in the interaction, would not understand the word — therefore rendering the article meaningless: ‘You can’t make up a word and just expect the reader to understand it. I didn’t even know how to pronounce it.’

It’s about context, I argued. You can see the root of the word — it’s a variation of ‘unique’. His argument was that if I formulated my sentences correctly, I wouldn’t need to invent a new word. This was about an inadequate grasp of grammar, not about a creative reimagining of an existing word. But why does that grammatical structure remain so important for English, when it can be translated into different language structures and the sender and receiver can still come up with same meaning?

My attitude with learning new languages it to throw all the words at it. Forget grammar, use everything in your lexicon, throw some mime in there too. As long as you’re not doing it over the phone you’re fine. An Argentinean once said to me: ‘You speak terrible Spanish. But you speak really really good Spanish body language.’

And I think Kenyans and other East Africans would agree with me about accepting the mutability of language. As they wryly say,  Kiswahili was born in Zanzibar, grew up in Tanzania, fell sick in Kenya, died in Uganda and was buried in Congo.

I like this saying from the British Library Language & Literature series: ‘The English language is a vast flea market of words, handed down, borrowed or created over more than 2000 years.’ And it is still expanding, changing and trading. Protecting the grammatical structure is important, but creating exciting new words to slot into a tempting space in that structure is part of the fun of communication. Wrapping your head around a new structure that suit the unique expressions of a different culture is equally mind-broadening. Just pray your editor is open minded…

- Katy Carlan

Katy Carlan is UNE student currently working as a Gender Research and Communications Officer with a Kenyan women's rights NGO.

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