Joel of Far Outliers is in Cameroon with his family, and his latest post, after a description of finding themselves at the fanciest restaurant in Ebolowa (“We found out too late that we would have had many more choices had we driven into the city center first”), explains that the signs on the restroom doors, binga and befam, are the plurals of minga ‘woman’ and fam ‘man’ respectively in the Bulu language. He says that this is typical of Bantu noun classes, and finishes with this excellent tidbit:

The most memorable introduction to this phenomenon that I’ve ever read was a passage in African Language Structures (U. California Press, 1974) by William Everett Welmers, who on p. 160 applies Bantu noun class and concord systems to words borrowed from English:
kipilefti ~ vipilefti ’roundabout(s), traffic circle(s)’
digadi ~ madigadi ‘fender(s)’ (< mudguard)
KeRezi (a fictional Bantu language)
mudigadi ~ badigadi ‘bodyguard(s)’
mutenda ~ batenda ‘bartender(s)’
matini ‘martini’ (with ma– marking mass nouns for liquids)

I’m guessing “KeRezi” is a Bantuization of crazy.


  1. Mmm, ‘sont bizzares les Bulus, ‘z-appellent les hommes des femmes !

  2. So, are crazies murezi or marezi?
    The complexities of languages of cultures we consider primitive are mind boggling. Of course, studying them might challenge the primitive assumption.

  3. Ah, it’s already in the post. Quite amusing nonetheless 🙂

  4. I’ve been assured by those who ought to know that the word kipilef(i)ti is an urban myth and doesn’t exist in the language as actually spoken. Nevertheless, I’ve come upon it more than once in Swahili textbooks. Similarly kilabi, plural vilabi, for ‘club’, and vilo as the plural of kilo, ‘kilogram’. Any Swahili experts out there that know for sure, one way or the other?
    I’ve no idea whether the above applies to digadi, which I’ve also seen quoted in the texts.

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  7. marie-lucie says

    GW: The complexities of languages of cultures we consider primitive are mind boggling. Of course, studying them might challenge the primitive assumption.
    Who is “we” here? Linguists (official or not) have been at pains to “challenge the primitive assumption” since the beginning. See for instance Language by Edward Sapir (1921).

  8. befuggled says

    Death may be the only *cure* for excessive sweating, but there are techniques you can use to minimize it. For instance, you can hang out in an establishment like one of these.
    (Pity I don’t think the one in Stockholm didn’t serve beer.)

  9. You know, I almost deleted that “How To Sweat Less” spam comment when it turned up in my editing menu, but it occurred to me that people might have been unable to resist referring to it, so I checked, and sure enough! So I just pulled the URL and left it as Exhibit A.

  10. Also, I’m sorry to hear that about kipilefti, but now that you mention it, it certainly has the air of something too good to be true.

  11. marie-lucie: Society generally – not linguists, not anthropologists, et al. Not me.
    I used ‘we’ as a member of American society. I did not intend it to mean every single individual of that society.

  12. In my own defence I don’t usually respond to spam but the reference to “effective solutions” – a tautology worse than endlösungen – to excessive sweating was too provocative to ignore. Icebars would only freeze the problem areas, if you’re plagued by this you probably should move to Death Valley or some other dry desert.

  13. I had assumed that “KeRezi” was related to “Ingrezi, Ingirezi” or some such form of the language name “Inglish” (via Spanish “Ingles” at some point?)

  14. Hebrew can do amusing things with words taken from English.
    Barman was adopted straight up (as it were) as barman, but a female preparer of drinks is a barmanit, the -it suffix indicating the feminine.
    The usual masculine form of a noun carries an -im suffix. So sealed-beam headlights are silbim, but a single headlight is occasionally referred to as a silb.

  15. Oops. That should be “The usual masculine plural form . . .”

  16. michael farris says

    Polish does the same, borrowing masculine forms and adding the feminine suffix, and also has barman, barmanka
    kowboj ‘cowboy’ is pronouned (more ore less) [‘kovboi] and cowgirl is … kowbojka (and for some reason Poles find the form ‘cowgirl’ to be strangely hilarious).

  17. J. W. Brewer says

    Presumably the point to be drawn is that “primitive” is not a unitary concept. The opposite mistake is to say “oooh, these people have such a sophisticated verbal morphology of tense and aspect! I guess we shouldn’t worry that they have an average life expectancy of 30, can’t smelt metal, and treat their women abominably.” But Swahili, in particular, is not in any sense the language of a primitive culture. It was developed as a trade language to facilitate the international slave trade from East Africa up to the Arab world. The Arab slave traders had guns, literacy, ships that could sail long distances, reasonably sophisticated financial arrangements, and all the other indicia of non-primitiveness that their European slave trading counterparts working the other side of Africa had.

  18. @J.W. Brewer: Heartfelt +1 to your comment, which I find extremely reasonable.
    Anyway, it’s rather safe to say that linguistic complexity has no relationship with society complexity whatsoever. (Well, a literate society with a morphologically rich language may have a larger impulse for research in grammar or linguistics: dunno if this count) While to me, any non-pidgin language could be said to be equally non-primitive – in the language structure, the level of civilization (is it outmoded to talk about them?), I think, is rather reflected on the aspects of a language tangential to the linguistic structure — proliferation of sentence connectors and other ways to provide information about logical/temporal/causal/whatnot relationship, a rich morphology making the coinage of new words easy — these are the two that occurs to me.

  19. “Hebrew can do amusing things with words taken from English.”
    Every language does this kind of thing, English included. “Chinee” and “Portuguee” used to be current in California, maybe only half in jest. Then there is “pea”. It gets really weird when we misapply foreign affixes and processes to foreign words, see the post and thread about the plural of “octopus”.
    I am trying to think of some examples involving verbs. I’m sure we do some pretty bizarre things.
    Using “flambe'” as an infinitive is pretty silly. but I’m sure there is worse out there.
    “kowboj ‘cowboy’ is pronouned (more ore less) [‘kovboi] and cowgirl is … kowbojka…”
    We do the same crap with our own damned etyma! “Female dog”? WTF?
    “(and for some reason Poles find the form ‘cowgirl’ to be strangely hilarious).”
    Frankly it’s pretty goofy even in English.

  20. To see how goofy English can be you merely need to walk to your nearest Starbucks and order two “venti soymilk lattes.”

  21. Language complexity is in the structure of the grammar. A comparison might be made between Latin or Classical Arabic and a Creole. Creoles typically have reduced phonetic inventories, less inflectional morphological, etc. Deutscher (“The Unfolding of Language”) relates complexity to isolation of the speech community and loss of complexity as a contact phenomenon.
    This, of course, has nothing to do with the sophistication of the speakers or their ability to express themselves.

  22. In my own defence I don’t usually respond to spam
    Hey, I wasn’t complaining! I love it when people respond to spam, but it’s a good idea to copy the message you’re responding to (as someone recently did), because I’m likely to have deleted it before discovering its effect on the conversation.

  23. michael farris says

    “Make me want to know more about African language. May be I should learn some in the future. Wonder which African languages should I learn first..”
    I find it somehow charming (and soul destroying – in equal measure) that someone would use this to hawk language learning materials….

  24. I really do want to learn African language somewhere in the future. Honest.
    About those language learning materials, why not?
    They are just another good materials which probably not many people know that they exist. Just some other alternative for language learner to choose from..

  25. Never have I seen before where the boundary between a spammer and a square nerd so fuzzy.

  26. Charles Perry says

    One of the pleasures of Arabic is seeing broken plurals being made of borrowed words, such as bawaskiit (plural of Boy Scout). Or verbals, such as mukandish (air conditioned).

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