Show me your faith without works
and I will show you faith by my works.”
(James 2.18, NET)
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 (women, wives) 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).
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.”
“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.
We are always continuing to learn and study the Maa language and culture of the Maasai. And so back in September, I was very happy to learn a new proverb —
Ekébikóo intókitin póoki náaramát ilóopêny
It means all things which their owners carefully tend last a long time. I was very happy to find this proverb to add to our lessons on stewardship. Whereas typical American teaching says “that stuff you think you own? Well, it is not really yours, it is only God’s, only God is the owner, and that is why you should take especial care of it,” we teach that ownership is what makes stewardship possible. (Of course, each of these approaches represent part of the Biblical teaching on stewardship — in one sense everything IS God’s and we are only his stewards, but in another sense because we are God’s children, God has given us resources that we manage as our own property — just like Maasai parents give animals even to their young children.) So when we use the proverb that says, “the cow says, don’t give me, lend me,” we can reinforce the meaning of the teaching by next reminding that the Maasai also say, “Ekébikóo intókitin póoki náaramát ilóopêny.” (To read more on how we teach Christian stewardship, read our My Father Is Alive post.)
But with this proverb I had a question about a bit of the language I didn’t quite understand. I knew that <ekébikóo> comes from the verb <ABIKÓO>, “to endure, to last a long time, to remain a long time, to last forever” (coming in turn from <ABIK>, “to remain, to abide, to stay”). But Maa verbal prefixes are tricky, and I wasn’t sure what the eké- prefix was doing. So I asked our good friend and colleague Ntinga Sam Tome, who is trilingual in Maa, kiSwahili, and English.
It makes the verb happy and brings out the meaning.
“It makes the verb happy.” Of course it does! But why? We laughed together.
Note: “Maasai” is the name of the people and the culture. “Maa” is the name of the language.
1 So S. S. ole Sankan, p. 92 in The Maasai (Kenya Literature Bureau, 1971).
(See especially Numbers 27.15-23 & 13.16b, though his story is found throughout Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.)