Language…such a fascinating topic, at least to me. Language can often reveal considerable information about a culture – at least what it values. For instance, there are several words for rice in Swahili – mchele, wali, and mpunga, depending on its state, usage, etc. Rice is a big part of Kenyan diet, even thought rice is definitely not indigenous to Africa.

But today’s topic is more about those funny things that happen with linguistics, particularly when speaking a language which is not one’s mother tongue. We have a term for that in Kenya called ‘shrubbing’. I have no idea as to the origin of this word, but to shrub is to make a linguistic mistake because you are passing the language through your own mother tongue matrix, but the rules of the adopted language does not fit your mother tongue rules. For example, take the humble ‘R’ and ‘L’. Many people are humoursly aware of the manner in which the Japanese exchange the R and L when attempting to speak English, often poking fun of such shrubbing. It is not as widely known, however, that a few Kenyan tribes share this R & L dilemma, most notoriously, the Kikuyu tribe. The reason behind this shrubbing, we have been told, is that the Kikuyu language does not have an L. In addition, the R sound is made by briefly flapping the tongue when pronouncing it, similar to the Spanish R, just not as pronounced, thus to their ears, making the R & L sound similar. When learning English, they are presented with the humble R and L but to them, they cannot perceive any difference, hence use them interchangeably, often with humourous results.

Take the time when Chip and I went home early from a Saturday all-night New Year’s Eve service in the church in Nyeri, where we worked in our early days in Kenya. The following morning, after the service, I was chatting with the pastor and asked him how the service went after we left. With a wide grin he pronounced “We have decided this will be a year of leaping!”. Puzzled, I queried “Leaping…you mean as in…”? whereupon I gave a small demonstration with little faux leaps in place. Slightly irritated, he replied “No, no! Leaping, as in harvest!” “Oh, reaping!” I subtly corrected. “Yes!” he replied, “a year of leaping!” I gave up. He simply could not hear the difference.

The tables turned on me not too long ago. Some time back I had learned a new Swahili word, which basically encompasses the concept of a peer or age group. It was a cool, handy word. I was going around using it liberally (that’s the best way to learn a word well, after all…use it frequently), puzzled as to why people often sniggered when I did or looked at me blankly. I simply figured they were unfamiliar with the word – which of course made me even more proud to use it. I’ve used this word for many years, literally. One day, recently, I spoke of someone being of the same peer or age group as myself, inserting my handy word ‘lika’ (pronounced leeka). Imagine my humiliation (and yes, slight irritation at all my Kikuyu friends) when I was corrected and informed my pet word was ‘rika’ (pronounced reeka – employing the slight tongue flap). What?! I wanted to crawl under a rock. I actually grabbed a Swahili dictionary at the first opportunity to prove this know-it-all wrong, only to find I was the mistaken know-it-all! I used to wonder what an old friend meant when one day after having chatted briefly on the phone in Swahili with him, he proclaimed “Eh…unasikika kama Kyuke” (generally translated as “Huh, you sound like a Kikuyu”). Now I know.

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