The Languages of Rafiki.

My wife and I saw the Kenyan movie Rafiki, which is quite good (Ebert review), but what brings it to the attention of LH is the language situation, which shocked me (I don’t think that’s too strong a word). I wasn’t surprised when some English sentences were exchanged early on — I realize English is not only a prestige language but an important means of intercommunication worldwide between people with different native tongues — but it soon became apparent that most of the dialogue was in English, used between people who clearly did share a language (I presume the Bantu language in which some remarks were exchanged was Swahili, but it would be nice to know for sure). It’s as if Tolstoy carried on having most of War and Peace in French. I have no idea whether that is an accurate reflection of the way Kenyans of that particular Nairobi neighborhood and/or those particular social spheres speak, or whether it was done to sell the movie abroad more easily (the fact that subtitles are needed even for the English dialogue makes that less likely than it might otherwise be). I will be grateful for any enlightenment.

Unrelated, but I want to mention how pleased I was by the recent Fresh Air interview with Sigrid Nunez about her new novel What Are You Going Through (which sounds good; I’ve never read anything of hers); asked about the title, she said it was from a quote by one of her heroes, Simone Weil: “Quel est donc ton tourment?” and added that you couldn’t translate tourment by the obvious torment because, although it can mean that, here it has the less intense figurative sense ‘anxiety, trouble, worry’ (I don’t remember what word she used; I take those from my trusty old Oxford dictionary). Quite so, and it’s important to remind people not to lazily use the nearest English “equivalent”! (She, like most English speakers, pronounced Weil like “vile” à l’allemande; I say /veɪ/ à la française, even though I’m aware it’s both confusing and impossibly pretentious in English — I can’t help it.)


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t know anything much about Kenya (I spent a week at a conference in Mombasa once, and Swahili was very clearly the default language there, but that’s a long way from Nairobi.)

    I notice that the author of the original novel, Monica Arac de Nyeko, is Acholi, though.
    The hinterland of Nairobi is a long way from the Swahili heartland, which may be significant.
    I would guess the Bantu language would have been Kikuyu. I would further guess that having the film dialogue predominantly in Kikuyu would alienate a fair proportion of the potential Kenyan audience, but as I say, I don’t know much about Kenya.

  2. The mathematician André Weil, brother of Simone, is always referred to in English as /veɪ/ — it helps distinguish him from his equally famous older contemporary Hermann Weyl.

  3. I would guess the Bantu language would have been Kikuyu.

    That makes sense; I actually studied Swahili a bit — a long time ago, true, but I think I would have recognized more of it.

  4. @F: I wouldn’t say always. I’ve definitely heard Andre’s name pronounced the same way as Hermann’s.

  5. Back in the 1990s at least when I spent time there briefly, the default language in Nairobi was very much Swahili-based. Some English may have been thrown in, but it was difficult to catch. But there was also the phenomenon of Sheng that was just starting to get broader attention around that time, an urban code mixing elements of Swahili, English, and local languages such as Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, and Kamba that supposedly originated as a vehicular language in the multilingual environment of Nairobi but was becoming the vernacular of the urban youth.

    I don’t know enough about Sheng to say, but I have the impression that there could be a continuum between the Nairobi dialect of Swahili and Sheng, which sometimes seems to be seen as a Swahili dialect, albeit an impure one. The English-derived words used in Sheng are difficult to identify for outsiders because they are adapted to a Bantu-style phonology, but there can also be some code-switching involving whole English phrases.

    I have not seen the film, but I would guess that the reliance on English dialogue is a deliberate concession to the broader audience rather than an accurate depiction of the local linguistic situation.

  6. Jongseong Park: Thanks, that’s a very helpful comment!

  7. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    confusing and impossibly pretentious

    Not necessarily pretentious. I don’t think I was much aware of Simone Weil’s existence before living in France, and I’ve nearly always heard her name spoken à la française. It wouldn’t occur to me to pronounce it auf deutsch.

  8. Well, obviously if you’ve lived in France it’s not going to seem pretentious; I’m talking about an entirely English-speaking environment in which French pronunciations of names like that are unknown.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    The now-quite-large law firm Weil Gotschal & Manges is often just called “Weil” for short and is pronounced Americanly, i.e. homophonously with “while” for those with the wine-whine merger. I’m going to guess that at least by the time that Frank Weil (1894-1957) co-founded the firm in 1931, he pronounced his own surname thusly. I assume that some Americans who have occasion to speak Simone Weil’s name aloud use that pronunciation, but who knows whether they’re being incorrect or merely unpretentious.

    This reminds me by free association that even though the overwhelmingly smart bet would be that “Kurt Vile” applied to a rock and roll musician has got to be a punning stage name, the actual Kurt Vile was in fact given that name (Kurt Samuel Vile, in full) as a baby by his parents Charles and Donna Vile.

  10. i’m now trying to remember how a musician friend surnamed Weill pronounces her name: she’s from a yiddish jewish background, raised in an occitan context, with (i believe) standardized french as her cradle-tongue… i mostly hear other folks here in the states treat it like װײַל (litvak/YIVO-style, with /aj/).

  11. I assume that some Americans who have occasion to speak Simone Weil’s name aloud use that pronunciation, but who knows whether they’re being incorrect or merely unpretentious.

    I assume that the vast majority of them have no idea of the French pronunciation, and thus are pronouncing it as if it were either English (“wile”) or German (“vile”), and there’s nothing whatever wrong with that. Again, the point here is that if someone were to come up to you with a WEIL nametag and you said “Hello, Ms. Vile” and she said “Actually, it’s Vey” and you persisted in calling her Vile, then it would be you who would be vile.

  12. Stephen Hawking had a pun about the proposal (put forward in the 1990s, I think) that the Big Bang might have started the universe off with a substantial conformal curvature. Hawking called the idea “vile.”

  13. I haven’t seen Rafiki, but I did watch the trailer, and the Bantu language spoken in the trailer is definitely Swahili. The Wikipedia page for the movie also confirms that it is in English and Swahili. Based on my limited experience of living in Kenya for a few months, I actually don’t think it would be that unusual for two people from Nairobi to talk to each other in English. While most rural Kenyans speak Swahili better than they speak English (if they speak English at all), that is not necessarily the case among more educated folks in Nairobi. I believe that all Kenyan schools use English as the language of instruction from secondary school onwards, and people who can afford to will often send their kids to private schools where the language of instruction might be English from the beginning.
    When I was in Kenya earlier this year I was talking to some Kenyan colleagues from Nairobi who spoke nearly flawless English. They told me about a time when some visitors from Tanzania came to visit their Nairobi office, and they had to find someone to translate because they didn’t speak Swahili well enough to understand the Tanzanians! While there are certain dialectical differences between Kenyan and Tanzanian Swahili, I don’t think that was the issue in this case. Tanzania uses Swahili in the education system much more than Kenya does, so Tanzanians tend to have a larger vocabulary in Swahili and in many cases speak Swahili as their most dominant language. By contrast, Kenyans who don’t live on the coast (where Swahili is spoken as an L1) almost always speak Swahili less well than they speak some other language, and they tend to speak a version of Swahili that has a slightly simplified grammar and reduced lexicon compared to Tanzanian Swahili. In Nairobi there is a speech variety called Sheng, which is based primarily on Swahili and English, but also includes influences from other Kenyan languages. Kenyans tend to think of Sheng as a form of slang, but linguists might consider it a mixed language or even a creole. I don’t know much about it so I can’t say for sure.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    Looks like the definitive answer (I’m glad I flagged up my own ignorance previously. How right I was …)

  15. Thanks a million, Mickey!

  16. Trond Engen says

    How does the Swahili of DRC (Zaire) fit into the picture?

    I have a colleague who was born and raised in Zaire (until fleeing as a youth) and is a native speaker of Swahili.

  17. Eastern half of DR Congo is Swahili speaking (as L2, of course).

    Approximate division of Congo into 4 main linguistic areas:

    In fact, with 22 million speakers Swahili is the most spoken language in Congo, ahead even of French. The varieties of Swahili spoken are very different from each other and from the Coastal Swahili.

  18. Trond Engen says

    My colleague grew up with Swahili as his L1.

    I haven’t found occasion to ask about the dialectology and sociolinguistics.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Lingala was deliberately promoted by Mobutu’s regime, a fact not unconnected with the origins of that evil man in northwestern Zaire/Congo. Although it seems to be pretty solidly established in Kinshasa (along with French) and as a lingua franca in the west/northwest, I’ve read that there is some concern about its fortunes in the absence of deliberate state promotion and the fissiparous character of that unhappy country; it could easily lose ground to Swahili in future.

  20. Asked a coworker from Kenya and after watching a couple clips and trailers, his response was that it was fairly accurate for Nairobi; that it sounded natural and accurate to the city. His input was that if it were set within their village or tribe, they would speak their own language, but within Nairobi (and other major population centers) most speak predominantly in English with interspersed Swahili (and sometimes other languages).

    Have another coworker I could ask, who is currently in Nairobi and should be back in the States in another month.

  21. Since Congo and Bantu are both referenced in this thread, maybe it’s as good a place as any to stick the fascinating article “Population collapse in Congo rainforest from 400 CE urges reassessment of the Bantu Expansion,” by Dirk Seidensticker, Wannes Hubau, Dirk Verschuren, Cesar Fortes, Pierre de Maret, Carina M. Schlebusch, and Koen Bostoen:


    The present-day distribution of Bantu languages is commonly thought to reflect the early stages of the Bantu Expansion, the greatest migration event in African prehistory. Using 1149 radiocarbon dates linked to 115 pottery styles recovered from 726 sites throughout the Congo rainforest and adjacent areas, we show that this is not the case. Two periods of more intense human activity, each consisting of an expansion phase with widespread pottery styles and a regionalization phase with many more local pottery styles, are separated by a widespread population collapse between 400 and 600 CE followed by major resettlement centuries later. Coinciding with wetter climatic conditions, the collapse was possibly promoted by a prolonged epidemic. Comparison of our data with genetic and linguistic evidence further supports a spread-over-spread model for the dispersal of Bantu speakers and their languages.

  22. …which I see Trond already linked here.

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