In Swaziland there was siSwati – a single language for a single tribal group. Learning that single language was hard enough and yet, now, I find myself in a country with 72 different languages to try. To make things interesting, everyone I meet wants me to learn “their” language. Clearly, that’s not going to happen, so I thought I would try to narrow it down to one language per year. Where to start?
To kick it off, I thought I would stick with a language that’s closest to something I already know. English is the obvious choice and, fortunately, it’s also the country’s national language. Unfortunately, English is the first language for only 2% of the population, which makes it a lot less useful than an English-speaker would hope.
Most other Zambian languages are derived from Bantu languages. This means they carry the same grammatical structure as siSwati, siZulu, siSotho, seTswana, and a raft of other languages from Central & Southern Africa. This is the reason, Zambians tell me, that it’s “easy” for me to be fluent in several languages by the end of the year. Ha! They forget to mention that while the conjugations might (!) follow the same pattern, the actual words couldn’t be more different.
Each language also tends to relate to a particular tribal group – Chewa for Chewans, Tumbuka for Tumbukans, Bemba for Bembas and so on. Based on this, I figured it would make sense to start with a language from one of the local tribes in my neighbourhood. Since my “neighbourhood” covers the whole Eastern Province, that narrows it down to about 15 languages, at an extremely random guess.
Fifteen languages in less than a year is still a bit beyond my capabilities, so the next step was to look at the most commonly spoken of these, so that I could converse with the most number of people. In the Eastern Province that is Nyanja.
If, however, you were to think that I had finally found a language to learn, think again. You see, Nyanja itself isn’t a single language. There is Nyanja spoken in my region, which people keep telling me is the more correct Nyanja, and then there’s Nyanja spoken in Lusaka and elsewhere – a more colloquial version. The two vary wildly. This begs a very big question: Why?
It turns out that, unlike most dialects here, Nyanja isn’t a tribal language (ie. there is no Nyanja tribe). In fact, Nyanja is the Chewan word for “Lake”. You see, over millennia, Lake Malawi has drawn a rather big crowd of migrants from all around Africa. While the locals of Lake Malawi had their own dialect (Chewan), the visitors found it much easier to mash several local and migratory languages into one. And so Nyanja was born. Kind of.
Language is, of course, not a stagnant thing, so as this lake language moved West toward modern-day Chipata, it evolved into what is considered by Eastern Provincials as “traditional” Nyanja. It then evolved again into “town” Nyanja as it stole bits and pieces from a dozen other Zambian languages on its way to Lusaka. In that journey, Nyanja has become almost two different languages and a linguistical nightmare for the likes of me.
Suddenly, sticking with English seems like a pretty attractive option.