letters from nairobi

How Is a Clock Different From a Spoon?
April 19, 2012, 18:43
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

When I set my mind to accomplishing something, I tend to develop tunnel vision until the goal is achieved (see college GPA, wedding planning, bread baking). I generally consider this a positive attribute – a triumph of determination, if you will. (The less flattering “obsession” comes to mind, but I’ll stick with “determination.”)

My latest “project” has been a straightforward attempt to learn Swahili. And today, during my third Rosetta Stone lesson, everything came to a crashing halt.

The cursed name of my troubles? Dare I utter the words? Noun. Cases.

For a bit of background: unlike my linguistically talented brother, father, and husband, who are able to begin chattering away in whatever language they hear with astonishing speed, I have not been so linguistically fortunate. I have learned to speak Spanish, after studying it in high school, college, abroad while living in Peru during my senior year, and finally, after a year-plus of living in Nicaragua. But I am not by any means good at it – I still stumble over grammar and can’t for the life of me understand a movie filmed in Spain without subtitles. But I manage. “How much does the flying purple cow cost?” I can ask. Or “Excuse me, little boy, but I am hungry and would like to find a restaurant that serves fried Twinkies.”

You know, the important things.

I had heard that learning Swahili was relatively easy – like Spanish, everything is pronounced phonetically, and unlike Spanish, objects aren’t arbitrarily divided into masculine and feminine (be careful, or you could easily call the Pope a potato). Why not, I thought naively. How hard can it be.

Why not, indeed.

I’ll tell you why not: NOUN CASES.

My first two Rosetta Stone lessons were encouraging enough – being the perfectionist I am, I completed each lesson twice, just to make sure I had the vocabulary correctly memorized. Man and woman drinking coffee! Girls riding bicycles! Girls NOT riding bicycles! What is this? This is an egg!

And then I got to lesson three, chillingly titled “Lesson three.”

It started out easy enough – One egg. Many eggs. Boy with books. Green fish. Yellow ball.

And then came black and white.

White. Nyeupe. Okay. Baiskeli nyeupe. White bicycle. Kalamu nyeupe. White pen. I got this.

Paka mweupe. Cat – something. Kitabu cheupe. Book – something else. Yai jeupe. Egg… I don’t know. Shit.

As it turns out, all of the descriptive words – mweupe, cheupe, jeupe – mean white. And the fun doesn’t stop there.

The spelling of the adjective is not based on the spelling of the noun it modifies – I spent a good bit of time trying to make sense of the correlation this way. But then I realized that kitabu and kalamu both begin with “k” and are modified differently (kitabu cheupe, kalamy nyeupe). Back to square one.

The Rosetta Stone lesson doesn’t offer explanations; it’s more of a visual teaching methodology, which I generally find useful. But in this case, looking at a photo of a white cat, white car, and white ball, all with different words for “white,” was not helpful.

So I made a list to try and determine how each noun was modified. There must be some sort of logical system – right?

This is what the list looked like:

  • Yai (egg) = Jeupe
  • Gari (car) = Jeupe
  • Baiskeli (bicycle) = Nyeupe
  • Kalamu (pen) = Nyeupe
  • Paka (cat) = Mweupe
  • Farasi (horse) = Mweupe
  • Kitabu (book) = Cheupe
  • Mpira (ball) = Cheupe

The only conclusion I was able to derive was that paka and farasi are both animals – an impressive feat of deductive reasoning. But why was book modified differently from pen? And why were bicycle and car grouped into different categories?

I took to the Internet to clear up my confusion.

What I discovered was a system that seems to be have been designed solely for the purpose of making language acquisition impossible. A grammatical structure created by a delusional schizophrenic who lived in a room with walls covered in obscure newspaper clippings, annotated with cryptic messages like “BOILER ROOM ZERO VELOCITY” and “REVERSE POLAR BEAR TERMINAL.”

In other words, the inventor of noun cases.

English has zero noun cases. Swahili has sixteen.

A noun case is a semantic grouping of words with its own set of grammatical rules. In Swahili, the modification of singular and plural words differ not by prefix but by content.


For example, case one and two, m/wa words, are names of human beings. Case three and four, m/mi, are names of trees, plants, nature, parts of the human body, and “human activities,” whatever that means. Case five and six are names of fruits, “uncountables,” “everyday life objects,” persons, augmentatives, and nouns of Arabic origin. There are separate cases for “abstract and concrete things,” “natural elements,” substantivated verbs, and names of countries.  Several cases overlap and the boundaries are unclear – what is the difference between an “everyday life object” and “domestic object”? Why is a clock different from a spoon?

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Suddenly, el Papa and la papa doesn’t seem as intimidating a distinction, after all. At least they both have eyes.


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Mwalimu mpya anapiga watoto wadogo.

Comment by Anthony

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