Swahili is an Arabic patois
May 21, 2002
Letters on language
I refer to Mr Raymond Chickrie’s letter captioned "The Swahili language is of African origin" (SN, 7.5.02) wherein Mr Chickrie makes a number of incorrect statements. Among others Mr Chickrie glibly talks of "Swahili Muslims."
Swahili is a language and is not a group of Muslims. The Black people of East Africa who are Muslims speak many languages of which Swahili is one. There is no such thing as a ‘Swahili Muslim.’
As to the origin of Swahili - Swahili is an Arabic patois. This language originated when Arab slave traders and other Arab commercial exploiters intruded into East Africa. With the usual arrogance of conquerors, they tried to force their language, religion and culture on the Black Man. Subsequent British and French colonialists did the same in West Africa and in the Caribbean where you have had the similar evolution of English and French patois. In the Caribbean, for example, the best known is the French creole of Haiti.
Persian and Indian traders came in the wake of the Arabs and they too adopted and promoted Swahili because it was easier to use one language to communicate with all of one’s customers than several African languages. In the process, many Persian and Indian words were absorbed into Swahili.
Then came the British colonialists who promoted English above any African language and today English remains more important than any African language.
Before the British departed from East Africa, however, they began to promote Swahili which began to borrow heavily from the English language.
Swahili was therefore a language which owed its origin to foreign intruders and conquerors and has always been promoted by foreigners, whether Arab, Persian, Indian or British for their own purposes. And one of their purposes was to efface and destroy the original African languages in the area, or at least to stultify them, and replace them by a language those foreigners could more easily manipulate.
Indeed, so great was the psychological resentment against the Muslim Arabs and their slave-trading activities that when Independence came, the Black Muslims of East Africa humiliated the Arabs and even Persians by making them walk on their knees and in other ways attacking them. Such attacks were widespread in Zanzibar and also on the Tanganyika coast at the time. In fact, the linguistic position in East Africa now, is that English is far more stressed than Swahili and more and more Blacks are freeing themselves from the foreign cultural bondage of Swahili and adopting a truly international language in addition to their own `tribal’ languages.
As to the rest of Mr Chickrie’s letter, he makes excursions into the origins of Hindi, Urdu and modern Hebrew and exposes the superficiality of his knowledge of this subject. Hebrew was a language which was always spoken and maintained for two thousand years in the Jewish diaspora, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi. In the 19th century it was fashioned into a literary language and was spoken together with Yiddish and Ladino. When the Jews began returning to Palestine to reclaim their homeland, Hebrew was further developed into the language of unity of Israel and many geniuses from all parts of the world lent their skills in the further development of the language. Mr Chickrie’s remark that the Arabic language was used to recast Hebrew into a functional language by two mysterious Moroccan Jews is therefore both unfactual and absurd.
As to the Urdu/Hindustani language, that language grew up in the Ganges valley in Uttar Pradesh, the ancestral home of a high proportion of Guyanese Indians except the Madrasis.
Urdu is one of the 15 official languages recognised by the Indian constitution and in Pakistan, it is the official language. In Pakistan, however, since the vast majority of the population speak Pushtu, Panjabi, Sindhi and Baluchi and no Urdu, Urdu is regarded by many, especially Baluchis and Pashtuns, as the imposition of a Sanskritic language on them, and even the Sindhis and Punjabis who speak Sanskritic languages resent Urdu, sometimes calling it an Indian (as opposed to Pakistani) language. The only group which speaks Urdu as their native tongue in Pakistan are the Uttar Pradesh-Bihari immigrants from India known as Muhajirs and they are resented and oppressed by both Punjabis and Sandhis. Accordingly, in Pakistan, English is often more officially used than Urdu. In India, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and in Andhra and Madhyabharat, there are more Urdu-speakers than in the Pakistan population.
Mr Chickrie is quite wrong to say that "in the South Asian region today, Urdu has become a political issue". He is wrong because it is not today that it has become a political issue. It was so for the last half a century when the Pakistan elite brutally tried to force Urdu on the East Pakistanis who spoke Bengali, a language which has a richer modern literature than Urdu. The East Pakistanis rebelled, fought a bitter war and expelled the West Pakistanis who were trying to impose Urdu on them and established their own state known as Bangladesh. The 200,000 Urdu-speaking Muslim Biharis who are stranded in Bangladesh are forbidden by the Pakistan government to go to Pakistan, though these Biharis have always supported Pakistan. The Pakistan betrayal of the Biharis is today paralleled by their betrayal of their Afghan friends and brothers.