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Where is You-all's Place?
Self-Identity in Relational Cultures

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I have seen some adult language learners who do not want to learn a language unless they actually "need it to do their work."  Further they think they should be taught materials in their language study which they will be using in their job.  For instance, some may suggest studying, as a language text, the first book of some course they will be required to teach in their work responsibilities.

Language as a Channel
This American utilitarian approach blinds the learner to the fact that the language learning process is just as important as the learning of the language.  Language is closely intertwined with the cultural worldview of a people.  Thus the language is a channel by which a foreigner can learn how the world is organized in the new host culture.  Language is only the entry into relationships which are the basis for any practical communication in most cultures.

The way things are said, the things which are or can be said in the language gives insights into the world of the people who speak the target language.  The greatest value in learning a language is the socialization process.  It is not too strong if we even call this the civilizing process.  The newcomer has to become civilized again in the new culture. The whole personality has to be redeveloped in terms acceptable to the new society.

The decision-making process is also reflected in the language, as the cognitive worldview relationships begin to unfold with growing experience in the relational culture.  Clearly this is a pragmatic, interpersonal matter, not just a theoretical option or cuiltural nicety.

For instance the language may give us insights into the relation of the individual to the group.  In Africa the society (community) is the primary unit, whereas for the Westerner the individual is the primary unit.  In Swahili usage we find some verification of this.

Me or Us?
Where English would ask, "Where are you from?", in African languages it is common to ask, "Where is your place?"  But there is another twist:  In Swahili, for instance, whenever you identify someone you do not ask "Kwako ni wapi?" (Where is your (singular) place?).  Rather you ask "Kwenu ni wapi?":  Where is "you-all's" place?  And the answer is "Kwetu ni Kakamega":  Our place is Kakamega = We are from Kakamega.

"Kwao" (Their place) is used as a general word for "home."  We go to their place, not to his place.  "Alirudi kwao": He went back to their place = He went back home.  "Hawakuwa na kwao": They did not have "their place" = They did not have a home, any place to call their own.

Kikuyu usage is the same as the Swahili:  "Kwanyu ni ku?" (Where is your — plural — place?); "Gwitu ni Githunguri" (Our place is Githunguri).  The actual forms may vary, but I have found a similar pattern in many other African languages.  In Africa, I share the "place" with the world that lives around me.  And that world is relational and dynamic, not static as in the Western scientific, objective sense of reality.  You have to learn a new reality!

The Pot is Dead
This may also be illustrated in a Luo (Nilotic) usage.  When an earthenware utensil, like a pot or a tool, is broken, the Luo language expresses this by saying that the thing has died.  "Kikombe otho" (The cup has died; "San otho" (The plate has died); just as a person:   Johana otho" (John has died, is dead).  However, some thing made by humans is said to be broken:  "Kom otur" (The chair is broken).

A Relational World
The African view of the relationship of people to things is also different.  In Swahili you do not say that you "have" a thing.  You say "Nina gari" (I with a car), or "Nina mke" (I with a wife).

Most other Bantu languages have this same pattern.  For example, Kikuyu (Kenya):  "Ndina ciana igire" (I am with two children); "Ndina thina" (I am not with a problem);  in Kamba (Kenya):  "E na syana itatu" (He is with three children); "Twi na ng'ombe itano" (We are with five cows); Kwanyama (Namibia):  "Ondi na embo" (I with a book); "Oku na eengobe ditoka" (He with white cows); Zulu (South Africa):  "Ubaba unezinkomo eziningi" (My father with many cattle); "Umuntu unomfana" (The person with a boy); "Ngifuna ukubanezincwadi ezine" (I want to be with four books).  (In the Zulu examples, vowel changes make the "na" appear as "ne" or "no.")

I have documented examples like this in many other Bantu languages over the continent.  A few of these many languages are Tswana, Northern and Southern Sotho, Shona, Swati and Herero.  Those given above are representative.

Other languages also often express this relational concept in the same way.  For example, Luo, a Nilotic language (Kenya, Uganda, and closely related to languages in the Sudan):  "Wan gi chiemo mang'eny" (We with much food); "Aonge gi pesa" (I am not present with money = I have no money); "An gi kitapi" (I with your book).

This concept shows up in other expressions.  If I want to express the idea that I am giving you something but "keeping" something else, in Swahili I will say "Nitakaa na hiki:" I will "stay with" this.

To clarify the perspective, let me say that the existence of this relational concept is not dependent upon such usage in any particular language.  Relational views of the world are deeply set in social structure and worldview.

The fact that such usages are so widespread, however, does seem to give additional confirmation of the concept, which is expressed in so many customs.  I have found this same pattern in languages all over Africa.  These forms seem to indicate that the concept of relationship is dominant over that of ownership, at least in the Western concept.

Foreign communicators will be judged in light of these cultural expectations, and expected to communicate and relate in those terms if they are to be credible.

Relational or Analytical — the Language Shows
It seems clear that the underlying traditional African concept is that people define themselves in relationship with things in the same way that they see themselves in relationship with other human beings.  It is not primarily the idea of possession, but relationship or association.  It is now likewise commonly known that a similar worldview is common to the hundreds of Native American peoples.

Other broad culture groups also have this same relational worldview, differing from the more linear, analytical Western cultures.  This illustrates how the learner can use the language to gain insights into the worldview and value system of the people.

Not only is this a possiblity to enhance practical communication, anyone dealing with anything involving social change (education, health, infrastructure, religion) must deal with matters at this dynamic worldview level of reality.


Original version of this article published in Language and Life (Limuru, Kenya: Communication Press, 1989)
Also published in the "Language and Life" series in Afri-Com, September 1990
Revised and first posted on Thoughts and Resources under the title "Worldview in Language:  Identity and Relationship" in the Worldview Perspectives series in 1999
This rewritten version posted 1 October 2008.
This version also appears in Worldview Perspectives

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1999, 2008
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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