Family Concepts

The rich vocabulary of a language in relation to a particular area of life evinces values specific to the culture. Interestingly, the notion of what is family is not as universal as we might expect.

The Wolof language in North West Africa reflects the importance of the community as almost equal to the family. In fact, the concepts of community and family are not as discrete to the Wolof as they are to the Westerner. The word ‘family’ could be translated by two different terms: mbokk includes people you are related to, care about and support (bokk means to share, have in common); njaboot refers to people you are responsible for, i.e. family, other people’s children or people you look after (boot means to carry on your back).

Conversely, while the definition of ‘family’ is clear and exclusive in Western cultures, words such as ‘cousin’ or ‘father’ would be rather vague to a Seri speaker. Seri, a Mexican language with 650 to 1,000 speakers, has over 50 words for kinship relationships. For instance, men and women use different words for ‘father’, and there are four words to designate a cousin, e.g. atcz is the daughter of a parent’s younger sibling and azaac is the daughter of a parent’s older sibling.

The matter-of-fact, and somewhat cold, Western family lexicon may be a reflection of how Western cultures have tended to be more interested in conquering the unknown world than caring for those at home.



What’s Your Name?

Unlike western first names, which usually have a remote and therefore forgotten or obscure meaning, many African cultures name their children according to the day they were born.

In formerly French colonial countries where the Catholic calendar is used, the name of the child may correspond to the patron saint of that day. Hence, I once met a man whose name was Fête Nat because he was born on Bastille Day: on the French calendar, the 14th July is simply noted as ‘Fête nat.’, short for ‘Fête nationale’ (i.e. national day/celebration). Ewe children, however, are named according to the day of the week they were born, their place in the family and of course gender. So a boy born on a Tuesday is called Kobla, a girl born on Thursday Yawa. If another boy is born on the same day of the week, a suffix, -ga or -vi, is added to each boy’s name, i.e. Kodzoga (born-on-Monday senior) and Kodzovi (born-on-Monday junior). If three boys are born in succession, the third one is called Besa, and the third girl will be named Mansa, etc.

Wednesday Friday Addams’s forenames may not be that fictional, after all…

Photo: Peeter Viisimaa

Written Somali is 40

On the 10th October 1972, the Somali language gained official status and, out of 18 scripts, the Latin alphabet was adopted for its standardisation.

The country then strove to reinforce its cultural heritage by championing its linguistic identity: dictionaries were compiled and literacy campaigns were launched. Foreign articles and other non-fictional texts have since been translated into Somali, bringing new ideas to the country. Books have also been translated, including children books, and Somali literature has started to be translated into other languages too. Interestingly, and although national institutions promoting the Somali language have stopped their activities due to the collapse of the State in 1991, translation from and into Somali does not seem to have slowed down significantly in the past two decades.

Before the arrival of Italian and British settlers in Somalia, Arabic was the usual vehicle for the written word, making Somali a largely oral language. As a result of its long oral tradition, the language is rich in proverbs, poetry, songs and vivid imagery, which in turn encourage an excellent memory and may explain why Somali speakers are very keen listeners.

However, as speaking is a public activity and reading is a private one, the Somali language will inevitably change over time. For most of human history, languages have been spoken and heard more than they have been written and read. As the more industrialised countries demonstrate, some languages have evolved and spread rapidly over the last two centuries as literacy and education increased drastically, and languages have in turn been affected by the progress of  their respective cultures and societies.

As Somali lost its momentum with the civil war, only 37.8% of the Somali population is literate, according to UNESCO, one of the lowest literacy levels in the world today. The number of Somali speakers is estimated to be between 15 and 25 million worldwide.