Saturday, March 9, 2013

Word Play! defines etymology as “a chronological account of the birth and development of a particular word or element of a word, often delineating its spread from one language to another and its evolving changes in form and meaning.”  Kristi and I have had fun with etymology, or “Word Play” over our last three years in Congo, learning the origin of different Tshiluba words which have an origin from different languages.  Learning Tshiluba has led us down some fun foxholes, discovering the root of some Tshiluba words that have been evolved over time from French, English, Portuguese and Kikongo (another Congolese language). 

As a test, I will list several Tshiluba words on the left, and their English derivative on the right.  Put your hand over the word list on the right and see if you can guess the English derivates of these Tshiluba words! 


  1. Dileta                                                                                                          Letter
  2. Mbeketshi                                                                                                   Bucket
  3. Nomba                                                                                                         Number
  4. Kabadi                                                                                                         Cupboard
  5. Ngalasa                                                                                                        Glass
  6. Mupanu                                                                                                       Pants
  7. Mbalanda                                                                                                     Veranda (or balcony)
  8. Machinyi                                                                                                      Automobile


How did you do?  Interesting, isn’t it? 

Another interesting Tshiluba word derived from English is “Kandalu.”  Years ago missionaries gave small dolls to their Congolese friends.  In Tshiluba adding “ka” in front of a word places it in a diminutive form, making the sense of the word less significant or smaller in size.  Thus, the missionaries gave what they referred to as a “ka – doll” to Congolese friends, who heard and repeated it as “Kandalu.”  A new word formed! 

The most amusing story we have heard relates to the Tshiluba word “Muzabi,” which means a robe or dress.  As the story goes, a Belgium priest asked a Congolese house worker to grab his “Mes Habit” (“My vestments,” in French).  “Mes Habit” thus became “Muzabi,” a well-worn Tshiluba word, still used today.   

A somewhat amusing but more disturbing example is the word “Mbula Matadi,” the Tshiluba word for government.  This Tshiluba words derives from the Kikongo word “Bula Mutari.”  Translated from Kikongo, it literally means “the smasher of rocks,” and was the nickname given to Henry Morton Stanley, the British-born American journalist/explorer, because of his penchant for using dynamite to build a road through the rocky mountain ranges of Lower Congo.  The Kikongo ‘Bula Mutari’ would become the name Congolese gave to their Belgian administrators – perhaps an indication of how they felt about their harsh colonial overlords.  Later it would become synonymous with government in other Congolese languages including Tshiluba (Nzongola-Ntalaja, 2002).

Well, we hope you have enjoyed a bit of word play with us.  Learning a new language is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together; it is fun to see the pieces all coming together and to see how languages play off one another, meld together, and create new words and meanings.     

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