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What Is It About Swahili, Tom Hinnebusch?

A UCLA professor emeritus of linguistics talks about language-counting, what makes Swahili special, and what becomes of manuscripts in East Africa.

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Duration: 9:40

CWL: I’m here with Professor Thomas Hinnebusch, Professor Emeritus from the UCLA Linguistics department. Tom, can you first give us a little background of what your courses were at UCLA and what your areas of interest are?

TH: Well, I was hired in 1973, basically to teach Swahili. I mean, that was my language of interest, and I had done my PhD research on Swahili; I was already at that time a fluent speaker. I lived in East Africa for three years, and had done my PhD research in Kenya, so I knew the language well, and they needed somebody to teach Swahili. The people who preceded me were never able to get tenure. And since I was a UCLA graduate - I did my PhD here - they knew what they were getting, and they thought the chances would be good that I would…I was tenurable. So over the years I did do some linguistic teaching, basic courses - Linguistics 1. And then every two to three years I did a course on comparative Bantu. Swahili is a language that belongs in that family, or large group of languages.

CWL: And how many languages are in the Bantu family?

TH: That’s hard to answer.

CWL: Oh really?

TH: Yeah, that’s hard to answer because the problem is defining language. For instance, Zulu and Xhosa are spoken in Southern Africa. They're really dialects of the same language; they're very closely related. Zulu speakers can understand a Xhosa speaker. But the two groups of people do not recognize this fact, so they are counted as separate languages, and so you have a problem with counting. I’ve seen 600 – 1000 Bantu languages. It depends on how you count them. There could be 500 maybe, but I think 600 is on the low end and 1000 is probably on the high end.

CWL: It could be a size of 1000?

TH: Right, Swahili for instance has at least a dozen different dialects and variances, and some of them are on the extremes of the dialect continuum, for example. There might be problems of intelligibility. Mutual intelligibility is an easy way, not necessarily a sound linguistic way, of making a distinction between dialect and language. But we generally only count one language, right? …Swahili.

CWL: Right. Is there a difference between dialect and variance? I mean how do you…

TH: I use variance to avoid using dialect because for many, many people, dialect means something substandard, not fully language. For linguists, though, dialect is a word that doesn’t present any problems.

CWL: What kind of sparked your interest in Swahili; what brought you to study Swahili?

TH: Well, it's one of those serendipitous things that happens. I liked Robert Frost’s poem about paths not taken and paths taken. You never know, right, how these things happen. I mean, who would have thought that I would even end up being a university professor. Growing up in Pittsburgh, right...I mean my dad was a steel mill worker with a college education, but nonetheless I was growing up in a working class family, in a working class neighborhood. If someone had said to me 60 years ago that I would end up teaching at a university, a major research university in America, I would have laughed at them and said, "Not me, not this guy."

So things happen, but I had spent four years in a seminary, and part of what I had to do to even get in the seminary was study Latin. Well, I didn’t study Latin in high school, so I had to get a tutor. I started Latin with a tutor, and I studied Spanish in high school, and I continued that study in the seminary. But when I decided to leave, my novice master said, "Well what now?" And I told him I thought I would like to do a master’s in Spanish and start studying French. He told me about the African studies program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and all the African languages they were teaching. I said, "Why not?" You know, I can be a, what is it…instead of being a little fish in a big pond, I could be a big fish in a small pond.

CWL: What is it about Swahili that you love most?

TH: I think what I love most is being able to speak the language, sitting down and talking with people. And it’s that contact with people that I think is the most important in knowing this language. Other than the fact that linguistically, it’s a very, very interesting language, there’s a written literature that goes back centuries. We have surviving manuscripts dating to about the beginning of the 1700s, fully developed Swahili poetry, so it’s much, much older that that of course. But manuscripts don’t survive in East African humid climate; insects and mold destroy manuscripts pretty quickly. So it’s a very, very old tradition. And then Swahili is a very interesting language morphologically; it has noun class system, where all nouns are divided into these grammatical categories, these grammatical sets which control agreement and things of this sort. So intellectually, these are interesting as a tense aspect system, which is very interesting in how that works.

CWL: Well, we have one last question, and that is how many other languages do you speak?

TH: (Laughing), why do people ask that question?

CWL: I know, we ask it to everybody.

TH: Everybody, as soon as you let them know you’re a linguist, that’s always the first question, maybe the second question that's asked. And it simply reveals the fact that most people have absolutely no idea what linguists are. Of course the government refers to the "government linguist" - well, those linguists aren't (really linguists). Well, no, I wouldn’t say that, but they’re certainly not the kind of linguists that we understand linguists are here at UCLA. Linguists are essentially interested in the structure of language, right?

So...how many languages do I know? Well, I speak English, and I know Swahili pretty well. I mean, I’m certainly not a native speaker; people know that I’m a non-native speaker of Swahili. You don’t lose your accent when you acquire language as an adult, generally. I can get by in Spanish, but I don’t feel very confident about Spanish, and I certainly understand more than I can speak. I can read French more-or-less. I studied a lot of Bantu languages, but I don’t speak any of them. I’ve studied Afrikaans, which is a transplanted European language that grew up as it were in Africa. But again, the problem is that I spent years studying these languages - Afrikaans, for example; Xhosa, another Bantu language - and I never got to South Africa, where these languages are spoken. So in some sense, it was a waste studying those languages, because I never got to speak them.

CWL: So you would say that going and living in the country is critical?

TH: Absolutely, without a doubt...without living in the community where these languages are spoken.

CWL: Okay, thank you very much.

TH: You're welcome.  

Center for World Languages