Saturday 19 June 2010


A few years ago I wrote a note for the journal Azania on the rare use of a nasalised dental click in Digo, the Mijikenda language that’s spoken on both sides of Kenya-Tanzania border. This click occurs in a couple of interjections-cum-ideophones, n|a ‘go away, get lost!’, and n|akule ‘miniscule, minute’, where n| represents a dental click with voiced velar nasal accompaniment (to approximate this sound try tutting with your tongue while humming through your nose). Linguists had missed these words, and I couldn’t find any record of the similar use of accompanied clicks in other Mijikenda languages. However, given that my field research for this article comprised little more than a chance encounter at a bus-stop in Tanga, a friendly conversation on the overnight train between Mombasa and Nairobi, and a chat followed by a quick tape-recording session in a taxi in Dar es Salaam, I fully expected other examples of click-bearing words to turn up.

I’m still waiting for evidence of these in Mijikenda. But I have come across a case in Swahili, recorded in Mombasa at the end of the 19th century by the Rev. W. E. Taylor. William Ernest Taylor (1856-1927) has been described as “England’s greatest Swahili scholar (Frankl 1999), while his Giryama Vocabulary and Collections (1890) remains the best lexicon of any of the Mijikenda languages, not least because he marked the phonological nuances that other missionaries of his time didn’t. It’s hardly surprising then that Taylor should have picked up on this unusual feature in the Mvita dialect of Swahili that was spoken by his informants in Mombasa. Here’s the relevant entry in his African Aphorisms (1891: 93):

Taylor was evidently at a loss as to how to write down this unusual word, and it’s difficult to know how to interpret his tentative transliteration. Zulu ‘c’ is a dental click and an educated guess would be that the word that Taylor heard (perhaps better transcribed mn|wa) includes the same nasalised dental click that occurs in Digo. The only other reference to this "difficult interjection" that I can find is in the article on 'Phonetics' that Taylor himself wrote for Mrs. F. Burt’s Swahili Grammar and Vocabulary (1910: 13, fn 1). There’s no sign of it in the fascinating collection of Swahili exclamations made by Carol Eastman and Yahya Ali Omar (1985), and Zanzibaris I’ve asked recall nothing like it in the Unguja dialect. But who knows what targeted research will produce? Is anyone listening?


Burt, F. 1910. Swahili Grammar and Vocabulary. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Eastman, Carol M. and Yahya Ali Omar 1985. Swahili Gestures: Comments (Vielezi) and Exclamations (Viingizi). Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 48 (2): 321-332.

Frankl, P. J. L. 1999. W. E. Taylor (1856-1927): England’s Greatest Swahili Scholar. Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere 60: 161-174.

Taylor, W. E. 1890. Giryama Vocabulary and Collections. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Taylor, W. E. 1891. African Aphorisms; or, Saws from Swahili-land. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Walsh, Martin T. 2006. A Click in Digo and its Historical Interpretation. Azania 41: 158-166.

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