21 July 2014

the things we compare.

Part of my Americanness is to compare one thing to another thing, or myself to another person, leading me into a realm I like to call the psychedelic vortex of comparison.

What goes on this realm, you ask?

Well, it is here that, between things, I compare the quality or condition. The value and the implication. The cost and the effort.

To another, I compare my ability, my accomplishments, my intelligence, my creativity, my results, my style, my method, my appearance, my personality. I compare the things I have done, the things I am doing, and the things I plan to do.

Why do I do this?

Perhaps to make myself feel proud. To elevate myself over another. To make myself feel good.

But really it does not have that effect. When I compare, I usually feel worse. I compare how I am lacking in some way and beat myself up for not having done more. Or I compare how I am better, but then feel guilty and stupid for thinking such a wasteful thought.

And there's that word: better. Quintessential comparative language. And the English language (at least American English) is full of it and we use this type of language all of the time. You know, words like:

The "-er's"
  • better
  • stronger
  • prettier
  • smarter
  • etc.
The "-est's"
  • best
  • worst
  • most
  • least
  • etc.
And of course the word favorite.

Living in Tanzania, I continuously face a particular communication challenge: not being able to compare things or people.

Why? Because comparative language is almost entirely absent from Kiswahili.

As far as I know, there are no direct translations for those aforementioned comparative words that we so frequently use in the English language. Those types of thoughts - "This is my favorite…" or "This is the best…" - just don't exist in Tanzanian culture, so they do not require comparative language to convey such notions.

This is very frustrating for me and my Americanness.

So often when speaking with a Tanzanian I try to compare two things, but I when I search for the words, I come up with nothing. Or when speaking with the children in our neighborhood, I naturally try and ask them "What's your favorite game?" but am unable so I have to dance around it. "What games do you like to play?"

And there is that other interesting word: like. Or is it love? I'm not sure, and perhaps neither are the Tanzanians, because in Kiswahili language there is no distinction between "like" and "love" - they use the same verb "kupenda". Even we - users of the English language - compare different levels of liking/loving.

So what's this about? 

Americans pepper their thoughts and conversations with comparative language, and our vocabulary does not leave us short of comparative words to draw upon. Tanzanians, for the most part, do no compare things or people, and their language does not even have the vocabulary for it. And the few words that you can try to bend to make comparisons are often considered rude to use, so they are just left alone.

Rather than drawing the final conclusion, I'll leave it up to you.

What do you think these language observations say about American and Tanzanian culture?


  1. Dear Michael,
    This is a very insightful observation on comparative language and cultures. I do not have final conclusion either because many times, I could not find English vocabularies to express a Vietnamese idea and vice versa.
    May Ashley and you find joy and peace on your journey.
    God bless,
    Tino Nhan

    1. It's been so interesting (and frustrating) to see how many concepts you just cannot translate verbatim into another language or culture. There are several aspects of Kiswahili that have no direct English translation, and the same applies for English to Kiswahili. Sometimes I am amazed that we are able to communicate at all between cultures!


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