What 1984 Taught Me about Kinyarwanda

The first book I read after coming to Rwanda was 1984 by George Orwell. It’s a book I’ve read many times before. Reading it this most recent time my new environment colored my perception of and reaction to the book.

The industrial, bureaucratic London which is the book’s setting couldn’t be more different from the rural, village & clan based society in which I found myself. The centrally-planned, repressive economic policies portrayed in the book also bore little resemblance to the flexible and ad hoc economic activity I saw around me: small unions of bike taxis, subsistence farmers brining vegetables to market and informal arrangements with domestic workers. But, there was one element of 1984’s world that I could relate to: Newspeak.

Newspeak is a language (or dialect?) Orwell created to show how a totalitarian regime’s reach could expand to encompass even how we speak and, therefore, how we think. The purpose of Newspeak is to limit language in order to decrease thoughtcrime, rebellious or incorrect though. In Newspeak there are only two adjectives: good and ungood. There is not even good and bad, just good and ungood. The wide range of positive and negative adjectives which exist in English: felicitous, serendipitous, awesome, terrible, execrable, etc. are done away with. For a stronger emotion than “good” there exist only “plusgood” or “doubleplusgood.” That’s it.

Kinyarwanda is very similar. A small set of basic adjectives is used to express all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Take the example of a bed. In English, I can compliment a blanket by saying it’s pretty, attractive, eye-catching, and so on. I can comment on a comfortable, fluffy pillow, a sturdy, well-made bed frame and a cushioned, luxurious mattress. In Kinyarwanda, all I can say is that all those things are good. I can also describe my reaction to the bed in English: delighted, pleased, gratified, jubilant, enthusiastic, satisfied and so on. In Kinyarwanda I can only be happy. This same semantic simplicity applies to negative adjectives as well.

Obviously, Kinyarwanda’s range of adjectives is not artificially limited by some outside body. The language just happened to develop this way. As I have written, it also developed great levels of specificity and detail in other areas.

But, I do think it’s interesting that the purpose of Newspeak’s sparse vocabulary was to limit thought. How are native Kinyarwanda’s speakers’ thought processes shaped by their language?

I’m not sure how much I buy into the idea that our thoughts are limited by the vocabulary available to us. I don’t believe that because Rwandans have fewer adjectives in their language than English speakers do their range of feelings and nuance of emotional experience are also less.

However, I would imagine that the act of learning each of the different words for happy, for example, that we have in English requires an English speaker to think through, however, briefly, the nuances of these different words. Maybe this makes their thinking about their own and others’ emotions clearer and more explicit. Maybe they can be more aware and self-reflective about the range of emotional experience available to human beings.

Because the ability to use very precise language exists, a correspondingly elaborate thought process must take place to choose between the different options available. So, maybe English speakers’ brains are more highly trained, in better shape so to speak, in this area than those of speakers of languages whose vocabulary is smaller?

I think this aspect of Kinyarwanda is interesting. It’s a very economical way to use language which reduces ideas to their most basic or essential form. Think how overwhelming it must be for native speakers of Kinyarwanda to be confronted by English’s array of adjectives! They wouldn’t know whether to call our vocabulary huge, large, gigantic, enormous, Brobdingnagian, expansive, massive or just plain old “big.”

The variety in and among the world’s languages is fascinating, isn’t it? Or, as I might say in Kinyarwanda, it’s good.

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3 thoughts on “What 1984 Taught Me about Kinyarwanda

  1. Pingback: DUDE | Surveying the World

  2. Hi Gretchen–I’m a Canadian university student and linguophile who’s interested in learning Kinyarwanda. Based on what I’ve read, it seems the language actually has a way around the deficit in adjectives that you mention: it simply uses stative verbs instead. So, “He’s sick at the moment”, “He was sick last week”, and “He used to be sick a lot when he was growing up” would become something like “He sicks at the moment”, “He sicked last week”, and “He used to sick a lot when he was growing up”. Or, to take one of your examples, “comfortable”: the dictionary at Kinyarwanda.net gives “gutuza”, which it defines as “to be calm, mild, comfortable”. It has the same “gu-” infinitive prefix as gukôra “to do/to work” has, along with tons of other lexical items that would also be considered verbs in English. 🙂

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