CROSSING THE BORDER AS A LINGUIST

CROSSING THE BORDER AS A LINGUIST

 

Mark Twin, James Cook, Joseph Conrad, Michel Kayoya, and Aimé Césaire are probably no acquaintances to you. No worries; they commonly write from travel experience to varying degrees─travelling is eye opening and thought-provoking; top-notch writers have created wealth out of travel accounts. Visiting Uganda and Rwanda and living in Burundi, I realized some living facts: in point of fact, it was not a discovery as what I knew then was already popular knowledge. To tell the truth, the two borders have 2 names with the slightest differences.

I have been to Gatumba immigration office on the border between Burundi and DRC without crossing it. However, even those who are still off the border sense something may be wrong with border names. Burundians officially call it GATUMBA, whereas Congolese call it KATUMBA. Ironically some Swahili-speaking Burundians ̶ a striking minority ̶ call it KATUMBA. At the end of the day, almost every Burundian pronounces KATUMBA when they are speaking Swahili.

As I crossed the border between Uganda and Rwanda, I did see the same phenomenon. Rwandese call the border GATUNA, whereas, for Ugandans, it is KATUNA. The same border officially bears a double name. It is still obvious on the exit and entry visas on my pass (April, 2011). Then I do not know how the two people perceive this, but to the best of my knowledge, there is no border dysfunction due to its slightly different nominations. In contrast, after Egypt, 42,000 Ephraimites were killed partly because they systematically said Sibboleth instead of Shiboleth[1]. Good pronunciation was a unique survival test.

The biology of whites—or any biology—is indispensable when it comes to sound production. Put differently, thanks to our body organs, all human sounds can be produced. To illustrate, the two sounds, [k] and [g], are velar, i.e. two of the three velar consonant sounds. They are produced in the area called velum. I may personally call them “identical twins” as they are reciprocal fits without damage of meaning. However, take the word mare and put b in the place of m: this change is triple: phonological, morphological, and semantic. Put otherwise, the meaning, among others, suffers change too. But again [k] is susceptible of taking the place of [g] since it is believed to be more common in human languages. It is no exception because some sounds take the places of sounds with which they share the same production area. In Kirundi, for instance, [m] and [n] are both nasal sounds. Thus [m] takes the place of [n] depending on subsequent sounds such as [f] and [p]. It is possible that one people initiated one word and the other imitated it—borrowed it—at its convenience. To make things clear, James Cook, the well-known explorer, introduces the word tapu in Great Britain; people slightly made some changes and the word became taboo[2]. However, few people know its origin. It is no surprise loan words becoming altered in the borrowing language.

Concluding, this piece of writing aims at showing systematic sound changes especially between the two borders: the border between Burundi and DRC first and the border between Uganda and Rwanda last. These sound changes are primarily the natural outcome of shared sound production areas such as the velum among others. And the discussion singles out sounds like [k] and [g]. Among others, borrowing may have contributed in the dual border names.

 

 



[1] Judges 12:6

[2] Dicos Encarta