Linguist: Kwanzaa, Sans Swahili

Tomorrow marks the end of the week-long holiday, Kwanzaa. Started in 1966 as a way for African Americans to celebrate their cultural heritage, Kwanzaa uses the East African language, Swahili, to name its days. In a recent online column, linguist and commentator John McWhorter argues that Swahili should be dropped from Kwanzaa. He tells host Michel Martin why.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Now to another holiday story. The holiday season continues this weekend, and while Christmas and Hanukkah are obviously over, and New Years Eve is tonight, one other holiday is still in full swing: Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa was started in 1966 to give Americans of African descent a way to celebrate cultural heritage as well as to challenge the materialism that many people say they don't like about Christmas. It runs from December 26th to January 1st, and each day is supposed to observe a different value or principle, such as unity or faith.

The word itself, Kwanzaa, comes from a phrase meaning first fruits in Swahili, an East African language that was used to name the days of Kwanzaa. But that is a problem, says political commentator John McWhorter. He is a linguist and a lecturer at Columbia University. In a recent column in the online publication The Root, Mr. McWhorter argues that Swahili should probably be dropped from Kwanzaa observances.

Jumbo, habari gani, oh wait, sorry. That's the problem.

JOHN MCWHORTER: It's a beautiful language, Michel. I think Swahili is great, but there is a problem with it if we're going to split hairs, and that is that none of our ancestors spoke that.

There are a good thousand languages spoken in Africa, depending on how you count it, and if a single one of them spoke Swahili, it was an accident.

MARTIN: Do you have a problem with Kwanzaa per se? Because some people say, why do we need another holiday, really? But that's not your issue.

MCWHORTER: No. Kwanzaa is fine. It's - I don't celebrate it, but I certainly would have no problem with anybody else doing it. The beauty of it is clear, and it's based on Swahili, and that probably isn't going to change, just the QWERTY typewriter keyboard isn't going to change.

And so it's not that I have some problem with the fact that Kwanzaa was created relatively recently, etc., etc. It's just that the Swahili part, which has extended into a general sense that Swahili is black people's other language and that you get in touch with yourself by learning the Swahili language, just isn't accurate. And I think that there are other languages that we could get in touch with that we could actually have some sort of authentic connection with, and are interesting in their own ways.

MARTIN: Now, just to clarify this. You're saying that you think that the ancestors of most of the people of African descent who are in the United States today probably didn't speak Swahili because...

MCWHORTER: They didn't come from...

MARTIN: East Africa.

MCWHORTER: Africa. And so they spoke languages like Walla(ph). They spoke languages like Twi. They spoke languages like Congo. They spoke languages like Igbo. Some - very few of them - spoke languages like Yarba. And I could go on and on. There are quite a few of them, but as it happens, Swahili - and remember, Swahili is one of about a thousand African languages - Swahili was not one of them, and not even by a long shot.

It's just a kind of an accident that at this point, 40 years plus after it was established that the language to go to black people - that we think of as somehow emblematic of us, and we have to remember that to say that Swahili is us because it's African, is in a way stereotyping, and so...

MARTIN: You're nominating Twi?

MCWHORTER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Which is?

MCWHORTER: It's Twi or Twi actually. It's spoken in Ghana. If you meet a Ghanaian, they almost certainly speak Twi, and they will be pleased that you've ever heard of it. And Twi is the language that I picked because you have to pick one that there's actually some way of learning. Out of all the African languages, there are many where you can to Amazon and there's not a single book on it. You could even go to a library and there'll be one crumbling book from 1942. So that's no good.

But with Twi, there are actual sources that you can buy for moderate prices where you can teach yourself some Twi, and there are Twi speakers - when you meet people from Ghana, they probably speak a local language, and then they speak Twi and so you could actually practice. And what's important, a lot of our ancestors actually came from Ghana.

And so once again, we have a genuine connection.

MARTIN: Okay. John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root. If you want to read his piece about why maybe it's time to let the Swahili go, at least as far as celebrating Kwanzaa, we will link to it on our website, just go to npr.org. And he's the author of "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English," and a linguist as you heard, and a lecturer at Columbia University. And he was with us from our bureaus in New York.

John McWhorter, thank you so much for joining us. And I don't know how to say happy New Year in Twi, but happy New Year.

MCWHORTER: Well, same to Michel, in English.

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