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Solving a Language Puzzle: Between England and Africa


Missionary Jim Harries presents a cogent argument for using indigenous language.


Words originating in English are often written and even pronounced in a different way than in English when in a different language. This always brings a challenge when using a foreign language.

Let me give some examples to illustrate this. The biblical name Joseph is in Kiswahili written and pronounced as Yosefu. When using Kiswahili therefore presumably I need to say Yosefu and not Joseph. At the same time in the back of my mind is the thought that “he is Joseph and not Yosefu.”

This is unlike the term ‘dog’ because this is translated and not transliterated. As a result in Kiswahili it becomes mbwa, and in Dholuo (a Kenyan language) it becomes guok. The above problem does not arise when talking about a dog in either of these languages – one merely has to translate. Dog becomes guok or mbwa.

Nouns that are not names in English can be even more difficult. Long trousers are in the use of Kiswahili often known as longi. A shirt in Dholuo becomes sat, a torch becomes toch, brother becomes brafa, maid becomes med, computer is komputa, radio is redio, and so on. I find it difficult to say or write the Dholuo / Kiswahili versions of such words even when I am using the above languages. It seems wrong to do so. It seems it ought to be right to say such words properly torch and not toch, brother and not brafa, etc.

Then I ask myself – if it is so difficult to speak the Dholuo / Kiswahili phonetics of originally English words, how difficult is it to remember changes in the impact of words when used in Dholuo (or Kiswahili) as against English? For example, the category of brafa may include distant cousins, a med is often unpaid, a komputa is a relatively rare product full of mystery, a redio may be someone’s only contact with the wider world – and so on.

The above results in two constant tensions when a native English speaker is using English words that have been adopted by African languages: Firstly, it can seem that African people are mispronouncing or mis-spelling the word concerned. Secondly, it brings a tension in one’s mind between a ‘duality’ of meanings or impacts of these words; are the words being used in an English way or in an African way?

Further thought has forced me to realise – that this tension does not only apply when English words are appropriated into African languages. It also applies to efforts made at the use of English itself in Africa! African people who use English do not use it in the way that people do in England. They use it rather in line with their own ways of life, as translations from indigenous terms, etc. So then, when I turn up as an Englishman, what am I to do? Should I continue to use English as I am accustomed to in England – and keep clashing with folks in Africa? Or should I try to adopt African English, with all the dualities that implies, and say things that would be considered to be ‘wrong’ by my own people?

I believe the solution to the above dilemma is a simple one in the end: use African languages in Africa, as one uses European languages in Europe. Should a European country ever attempt to use an African language as it is used in Africa to run their country, chaos could ensue. The reverse also applies.


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Category: Ministry, Summer 2014

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa (Wipf & Stock, 2017), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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