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.
o
e
lo
le
oo
loo
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.”

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.

It makes the verb happy

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.

Osotua

LANGUAGE IS FUN
If a stranger stops to ask for directions in parts of southern Appalachia, he might be told, “honey, you can’t get there from here.”  Communicating in a different language can be the same way.  Concepts that are as common as dirt in one culture might be unheard of in another.  So you want to learn how to say “please” in Maa?  Well, there isn’t a word for that.  Or maybe you want to say “thank you” in NgaTurkana?  Again, that vocabulary just isn’t there.  But sometimes it’s the other way around.  Turkana or Maasai cultures may have nailed down a concept in a single word that would take us a paragraph or a page to wrap our minds around.

OSOTUA
This is one of my favorite Maasai words.  If google translator worked for Maa (it doesn’t), it might translate osotua as “peace” or perhaps as “testament.”  The first is inadequate and the second is misleading.  Osotua is derived from the verb <asot>, “to join together.”  The root meaning of osotua is “umbilical cord” (the thing which joins the mother and infant together).  Consequently, one meaning is also “belly button” (the place where the thing which joins the mother and infant together was previously attached).  But this is just scratching the surface.

Osotua also refers to “a deep relationship of shared profound peace” (think the hebrew shalom, שלמ) “that is characterized by a closeness, tied-together-ness, and unity like that shared between a mother and an infant while the cord is still attached.”

A common Maasai blessing is Osotua le Nkai! (“Osotua of God”).  It means, “may you share osotua with God!”  It means, “may you be bound so closely together in a relationship with God that it is like that between a mother and infant when the cord is still attached!”

Another way to put it is that osotua is that type of relational peace and well-being that can only be found within a covenantal relationship.  Thus you will find that the Maa translation of the bible is divided into two parts:  Osotua Musana and Osotua Ng’ejuk (“The Old Osotua” and “the New Osotua”).  There isn’t really a word for covenant in Maa.  Olning’o, which means “kept agreement,” is commonly used.  But the bible translators recognized that a covenant is (or should be) something even stronger than an unbroken agreement.  A covenant is an olning’o that results in shared osotua.

A common Maasai proverb says Enkoshoke naata osotua:  “It is the stomach which has osotua.”  When I’m teaching in Maa, if I say “enkoshoke naata …” then the whole congregation or class spontaneously answers in unison:  OSOTUA.”  At one level this is as obvious as it is humorous:  “It’s the belly that’s got a belly button.”  Or you could say it more staidly, “the umbilical cord attaches to the belly.”  But both of those miss the point.  Another translation is “the stomach creates friendships.” 1  This is a proverb about table fellowship.  When we eat together, we have the opportunity to begin to build osotua in our relationships.  This is, of course, perfectly realized by christians when we share together in the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Communion.  When we partake of loaf and cup, ah! (“taste and see that the LORD is good!”) then we see that it is true:  enkoshoke naata osotua.  When we break and eat the bread together, when we bless and drink the cup together, then we experience true osotuathat deep communion within a covenantal relationship characterized by holy peace and a closeness that is like that between a mother and an infant while the cord is still attached.

And so to each of you I bid:  Osotua of God to you!  Osotua of Christ to you!

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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).

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my name is Joshua

יְהוֹשֻׁעַ

My name is “Joshua” not “Josh.”
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Of course there’s nothing wrong with short forms of names, diminutives or nicknames.  In addition to their given names (which we commonly use in full), each of our children has a whole collection.  In our house you might hear Yaya, Lala, or Didi, just to name a few.  (Can you guess which short form was derived from which child’s name?)
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But I prefer to be called “Joshua” rather than just josh.  Sure, I’ll answer to the short form and am not upset by its use.  But that’s not my name.
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The english name Joshua comes from the Hebrew name Yehōšu’a (יְהוֹשֻׁעַ — usually transliterated as Yehoshuaand the Aramaic form Yešu’a. (יֵשׁוּעַ — usually translated Yeshua)  These names all mean Yahweh is salvation, Yahweh saves-heals-rescues-delivers.  (The personal, covenantal name of God in Hebrew, often written just YHWH, is often replaced in english bibles with LORD in all caps.)  So whenever someone calls me by my given name, I am reminded who I am — rescued-by-Yahweh — and of whose I am — the Rescuer’s, the Healer’s.

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On the other hand, the english noun “josh” refers light-hearted, jesting banter.  The verb means either “to tease (someone) in a playful way” (when transitive) or “to engage in joking or playful talk” (when intransitive).  There is nothing wrong, in and of itself, with banter.  But I’d rather the core of my identity be tied to the saving acts of my God than with a jest.
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Of course the english name Jesus is our pronunciation of Jesus in germanic languages (where –j– sounds like the english –y-), from Iesus (in Latin), from Ἰησοῦς (ē-ā-soos or Yesous), the greek pronunciation of Yeshua.  So when I am called by my name, I am reminded that all disciples of Jesus are called to be christophers, Christ-bearers, as well as christians, little Christs or partisans of Christ.
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There was once a high priest named Joshua.  In a vision, the prophet Zechariah saw him dressed in filthy rags, being accused by the satan.  God himself rebuked the accuser, and God’s messenger directed the priest Joshua’s filthy garments to be removed, and caused him to be dressed with clean festal garments and a clean turban was put on his head.  God told this Joshua, “See, I have taken your iniquity away from you.”  (Zechariah 3.1-5)  This reminds me that in Jesus, my own iniquity has been taken from me and I am clothed with robes of righteousness and joy.  I am, in fact, clothed with Christ.
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My parents, of course, named me after the second most famous of those to bear this name, Joshua – “a man in whom is the Spirit” (Numbers 27.18) – the successor of Moses, with a prayer that I would one day grow into the same level of faithfulness which he exhibited.  That Joshua’s parents named him “Hoshea” (deliverance, salvation, healing, rescuing), no doubt prayerfully dreaming that Israel’s deliverance from her bondage in Egypt would come during the lifetime of their son.  Significantly, Moses changed his name to Yehoshua (“Joshua” is the usual english transliteration), emphasizing just who it was who was doing the delivering, saving, rescuing and healing.
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(See especially Numbers 27.15-23 & 13.16b, though his story is found throughout Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.)
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Back when I had more time for my trumpet, one of my favorite pieces to improvise on was the african-american slaves’ spiritual, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” (sometimes jazzy, sometimes bluesy).  That’s an awesome story, and a fun song.  But my favorite part of the story comes before the better-known story of the siege and defeat of that city.
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Now usually the first thing one of God’s spirit-messengers (“angel” is just the english pronunciation of the greek New Testament word for “messenger”) has to tell a human is “Don’t fear.”  Sometimes that means “don’t be afraid,” because the person is terrified.  Sometimes it means “don’t give me the reverent awe and worship that is only due the Creator.”  Because angels aren’t fat babies with wings, nor are they gentle and motherly young mothers with sweet smiles and perfectly brushed, long flowing hair, plus wings and halo.  God’s angels are actually mighty warriors whose presence and holiness are intimidating.  This is why the prophet Daniel fell on his face in sheer terror when approached by Gabriel (Daniel 8.17) and John the seer, when face-to-face with one of God’s holy messengers, fell at his feet to worship (twice! — Revelation 19.10 and again in 22.8).
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But not Joshua.  When he saw an angelic warrior standing against him with drawn sword, his first response was to boldly confront him:  “Are you for us, or for our enemies?”  Had not the LORD, and Moses, and the whole host of Israel commanded Joshua to be strong and courageous?  Had God not promised to be with him?  “No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life.  Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.  I will not abandon you nor forsake you.”  I want to have that sort of faith, that kind of trust, in God’s promises.  I want to be “a man in whom is the Spirit.”

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Names matter, and can be powerful.
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Hello.  My name is Joshua.  And you are … ?

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For the curious, we’ve also written about the meanings of our children’s names.

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Thorn Removal

I learned a new word today.  Do you need to say “I am pulling out thorns”?  Maa has a single word for that, aitaaiki.  Who knew?

Given the large acacia thorn-tree (which has thorns 1-3 inches long) beside our house (not to mention the grass-thorns), I’ve had many occasions when the use of this word would have been appropriate.  The last two times a big thorn has had to be removed from the foot of one of our girls, Zerachiah (4) snuggled up to comfort the sister in question (10 & 8, respectively), telling her that he had lots of braveness, and so he could give her some his.

(Aitaaiki is pronounced something like ah-ee-tah-icky, where the “ee” is as the “ey” in “key” and “ah-ee” is sort of a dipthong like “I” in parts of the American south, but faster, and the “tah” is like a 1/16th note while the other syllables are 1/32nd notes)