Speaking Swahili for Kwanzaa?


"Jambo" may mean hello in Swahili, but a slave brought to the United States would not have recognized that greeting. There may not have been a single Swahili-speaking African brought to these shores amid the slave trade. If there were any, it was very few.


I get to thinking about this during the holidays as we start hearing about Kwanzaa, which starts the day after Christmas and runs until New Year's Day. Kwanzaa is fine, but it was rooted in a '60s fashion for treating Swahili as black America's "ancestral" language. The choice of Swahili out of the thousands of languages spoken in Africa was innocent, and made a certain sense in that it is a lingua franca across several African nations where hundreds of other languages are spoken.

But the nations where it's spoken are in East Africa. Black Americans' ancestors came mostly from West Africa. And as we all know, Africa is enormous.

The thing is this: To treat Swahili as meaningfully ancestral to black Americans because it's "African" is to lump diverse peoples together in a way that might seem less appropriate if done by whites. Or, imagine someone with roots in Wales cooking borscht and toasting with vodka in salute to their "Europeanness."

If black Americans are to seek an ancestral language, shouldn't it be one that our ancestors actually spoke?

Picking just one is tough, though. No one African language is used as common coin from Senegal all the way down to Angola, and slaves brought to the United States came from places throughout this stretch. In the past, I have suggested Mende of Sierra Leone, the language of the songs that some Gullah speakers in South Carolina still remember in fossilized form. But there aren't that many Mende speakers in the U.S., and there are virtually no books in print for learning it (and not many even out of print in libraries). Nigeria's Yoruba is a tempting alternative, presenting neither of those problems. But its speakers were never a significant proportion of slaves brought to the United States.

If there is one West African language that a great many slaves in America spoke and is also realistically available to us, it is Twi. It's spoken in Ghana and is the lingua franca there for speakers of dozens of smaller local languages. Many slaves brought to the New World by the English, or sold to them, were from Ghana, then known famously as the Gold Coast, where Twi was a dominant local language. Just as important, a great many Ghanaians have relocated to the United States in the past 40 years, and therefore, someone trying to pick up some Twi could have native speakers to practice with.


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.   

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.