Speaking Swahili for Kwanzaa?

Instead, try learning a tongue that the ancestors of black Americans actually used.


Twi, unlike Swahili, will not throw you with piles of prefixes and nouns divided into seven different classes (which means that Swahili has seven “genders” instead of the two that are hard enough to deal with in French and Spanish). Twi is a language in which, while words are on the short side, the same one means different things, depending on what tone you say it with. This trait is why many African groups can communicate with drums set to different tones.

Say “fa” with a high tone and it means “festival.” Say it in a low tone and it means “take.” It gets interesting: Say the word for “my” when it’s referring to part of your body, and you say it with a low tone. But if you are saying “my (something else),” like an umbrella or a table, then you say it with a high tone.

Yet the fact is that Rosetta Stone, Living Language, Berlitz and the other grand language-teaching outfits haven’t gotten to Twi the way they have to Swahili. One way we could get their attention is to start buying up what education sources there are. If you just want to get your feet wet, Pimsleur has a neat little intro kit. If you really want to get into it, then get this offering and remember to get the audio materials, too, since they’re the only way to get the knack of the tones.

Imagine black America reuniting with a language that its ancestors actually used.

For the record, the name “Kwame” and the Anancy spider of folklore are Twi. Let’s fill things in from there — especially because of one other fact: Twi is actually quite similar grammatically to none other than Chinese. Anyone who has even played with Twi a bit will be in a good position to pick up Mandarin, which will be a handier business decision by the year for all Americans.

So, “jambo” means “hello”? Well, in Twi, biakong, abieng, abiesang is “one, two, three.” Try that on a Ghanaian you know, and watch someone delighted to see you making the acquaintance of a language that at least one of your ancestors probably spoke.

John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root. He is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.   

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