Language is Fun

Maa (the language of the Maasai people) is delightfully reflexive.  For any of our friends who are language nerds, here’s a grammatical excursus.

Where English has simply “of“, Maa has six different prepositions.
So “o” indicates that what follows is grammatically masculine, “e” indicates that what follows is grammatically feminine, “oo” indicates that what follows is plural (without reference to grammatical gender), the prefix “L” indicates that what precedes is grammatically masculine, and the absence of the prefix “L” indicates that what precedes is grammatically feminine.

Are you confused yet?

Here are a few examples.
entito (daughter, girl) and enkitok (woman, wife; and, etymologically, the-[feminine]-great one*) are, naturally, grammatically feminine. (The plural forms are, respectively, intoyie and inkituaak.)  Note that the initial vowels will be dropped when following one of the prepositions for “of.” Thus
entito e nkitok (the daughter of the woman)
intoyie e nkitok (the daughters of the woman)
entito oo nkituaak (the girl of the women)
intoyie oo nkituaak (the daughters of the women).

*For an explanation of enkitok/inkituaak as
great one /  great ones, see Joshua’s papers:
“Lessons from Scripture for Maasai Christianity,
Lessons from Maasai Culture for the Global Church,”
Priscilla Papers 33/2 (Spring 2019): 17–23; and
“Mutual Submission, Mutual Respect:
Reciprocal enkanyit in Ephesians 5 in the Maasai context,”
Stellenbosch Theological Journal [forthcoming].

olayioni (boy, son) and olpayian (man, elder, husband) are, of course, grammatically masculine. (The plural forms are, respectively, ilayiok and ilpayiani.)  Thus
olayioni lo lpayian (the son of the man)
ilayiok lo lpayian (the sons of the man)
olayioni loo lpayiani (the boy of the men)
ilayiok loo lpayiani (the sons of the men)
entito o lpayian (the daughter of the man)
intoyie o lpayian (the daughters of the man)
intoyie oo lpayiani (the girls of the men)
olayioni le nkitok (the son of the woman)
ilayiok le nkitok (the sons of the woman)
olayioni loo nkituaak (the boy of the women)
ilayiok loo nkituaak (the sons of the women)

It’s actually quite logical and therefore simpler than you may think.

But here’s something that threw me for a loop back in 2007 when we were just learning.

Followers of Jesus” is ilasujak le Yesu. “Followers of the Lord” is ilasujak lo Laitoriani. Again, the “le” and “lo” are equivalent to the English preposition “of.”

To review:
LO” and “LE” —
• the -L- indicates that what precedes (in this case ilasujak / followers) is grammatically masculine (the absence of this consonant indicates that what precedes is grammatically feminine — thus “inkasujak e Yesu” is “the [female] followers of Jesus“);
• the -O- indicates that what follows (in this case Olaitoriani / the Lord; the initial -o- of the noun drops off for linguistic reasons) is grammatically masculine; and
• the -E- indicates that what follows (in this case Yesu / Jesus) is grammatically feminine.

Wait.  What?  Jesus is feminine, a woman?!

Nope, of course not.

But the Maa word for “name” — enkarna — is grammatically feminine. Thus as a class, in Maa *all personal names* are *grammatically* feminine, even though there is no confusion in the language between male and female names. (For example: Nashipai is a female name, Enchipai is the male equivalent; Lemayian is a male name, Namayian is the female counterpart.)

Both male names and female names are *grammatically* feminine.  Thus “ilasujak lo Yesu” (or for that matter, “illasujak lo Joshua“) is just grammatical nonsense.  It must be “ilasujak le Yesu” (or “le Joshua“) to be correct.  No Maasai thinks that Jesus is a female or feminine, just as I am male and masculine.

Thus while I am an olpayian, my children (inkera) could be referred to as either:
inkera o lpayian (the son of the man), OR as
inkera e Lemayian (the children of Lemayian).

(Lemayian, “the one of blessing,” is my Maasai name.)

This was a great puzzlement for me before I figured out what was going on. Because enkarna (name) happens to be grammatically feminine, all personal names are grammatically feminine, irrespective of the masculinity or femininity of the subject of the name.

2 thoughts on “Language is Fun

    • That’s funny.

      Of course, the easy language is the one you already know, whereas the hard one is the one you don’t know yet!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.