I have lived long enough to see changes in grammar and meanings of words which at one time I thought unlikely to take place. This is true both in English and Malawian languages. In my school days, the sentence; ‘Either John or Janet will bring his or her own book’ would earn you no marks. But these days, phrases in which we used to avoid repetition of ‘or’ have become respectable.
We were usually taught to say; ‘The political environment is conducive to foreign investment’ and not ‘The country has a conducive political climate’. But this is becoming common just as the phrase ‘like I told you’ instead of ‘as I told you’.
The Chichewa or Chinyanja language has borrowed words from English and given them extra-ordinary meanings. The word ‘via’ means travelling through or enroute. Nowadays, you hear from less sophisticated members of our society using vaya from via to mean ‘to go’. Hence, ‘John wa vaya ku Lilongwe’.
Even sophisticated or articulate members of our society have converted some English words ambiguously. Listen to the radio and you hear the announcer referring to the university or Polytechnic as ‘sukulu ya ukachenjede’. Apparently, he has failed to find a Chichewa equivalent for college but is quite confident that sukulu ya ukachenjede is the correct translation of Polytechnic or university. Open your Concise Oxford English Dictionary or Collins English Dictionary. You will read that a university is a high level education institution in which students study for degrees and academic research is done.
The word ‘ukachenjede’ exists in the Tumbuka language as well where it means ‘shrewdness’. Perhaps in Chichewa it means an institution of higher education, I stand to be tutored here.
English acquired a wide vocabulary by borrowing freely from other languages, especially Greek and Latin. It even borrowed from African languages, words like indaba, mamba, kwashiorkor or zombie. Where we come across highly technical terms for which there are no obvious equivalent words, we should just borrow the foreign word and modify its pronunciation if necessary. After all, we have found no word of our own for book (buku) or school (sukulu). The borrowed words can be explained in a dictionary. This would be better than improvising translations, which mislead rather than enlighten.
Incidentally, top universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge, have given the world authoritative dictionaries. Recently, the University of Malawi (Unima) celebrated its 50th anniversary. Why has it, up to now, not given this country a comprehensive Chichewa to English dictionary or English to Chichewa dictionary? One would have thought this was one of those projects at which Unima would excel easily. Perhaps funding is the problem, but has Unesco been approached?
A national language must be backed by an authoritative dictionary to settle problems of dialects. The lingua franca of this country was called Chinyanja up to the year 1968. The way people spoke it in the Central Province, it was called Central Province Chinyanja.
When in 1968 Dr Kamuzu Banda decreed that Chichewa be the national language, linguists started condemning words peculiar to Chinyanja. Books by famous writers such as E.W. Chafulumira and P.P. Litete had to be revised so that in place of azimai they wrote amai, mtsikana becomes msungwana, and wache becomes wake.
An authoritative dictionary would be more generous and incorporate dialectical words such as those used in Zambia where they prefer the Ngoni words manje to tsopano or ngena to lowa.
I still come across people who think Zambians call Chichewa as Chinyanja because they are Nyanja people. This is not the reason. Up to 1968, the language spoken and examined in Malawi and eastern Zambia was called Chinyanja. When Kamuzu decided to rename it Chichewa, apparently he neither consulted nor informed the Zambians. The latter decided to continue with the name Chinyanja. This is the case with the name of our greatest lake when we decided to rename it Lake Malawi. Our neighbours the Tanzanians and Mozambicans continued to refer to it as Lake Nyasa or Niassa.
Next time you might come across an advert in which the applicant is expected to have a bias in, do not say but the Oxford Dictionary says ‘bias’ be followed by towards or against. English is evolving everywhere.