The Swahili Word for Transparency, and the Fallacies of Linguistic Determinism

I recently attended a workshop where participants were debating, among other things, why reform initiatives to promote government transparency and other anticorruption measures in places like sub-Saharan Africa had such a (seemingly) poor track record. In the course of the conversation, a well-known tenured professor declared – as evidence for the proposition that cultural incompatibility explains much of this apparent failure – that “there isn’t even a Swahili word for ‘transparency.’”

I was flummoxed and expressed some confused skepticism, but this professor (who, by the way, is a white Englishman whose CV does not indicate that he speaks Swahili or has ever done any research in a Swahili-speaking country) insisted that this was not only true, but was strong evidence that government transparency was an alien concept in Swahili-speaking societies.

It wasn’t a terribly important part of the discussion — more of an aside — and the conversation swiftly moved on. But the assertion that this linguistic lacuna demonstrates a significant cultural gap–one with important policy implications–has been bugging me ever since, not least because it reminded me of Ronald Reagan’s absurd claim that “in the Russian language there isn’t even a word for freedom.” (There is, by the way: svoboda.) So just in case this specific claim about Swahili, or linguistic arguments like this more generally, are an emerging meme in the anticorruption commentariat, I thought it would be worth a quick post to try to nip this nonsense in the bud.

So, what’s wrong with the claim that there’s no Swahili word for transparency? Three things:

  • First, it’s just false. The Swahili word for transparency is uwazi. (I don’t know any Swahili, but with the wonders of modern technology it took me all of 30 seconds to figure this out.) Now, of course it’s possible that uwazi didn’t originally mean “transparency” in the sense of knowing what a government (or some other organization) is doing. But that’s also true of the English word “transparency,” which when used in this context is a physical metaphor. I’m not sure when it became common to use the word “transparency” to describe the ability to access data or other information about what an organization is doing, but I suspect it’s fairly recent. If I’m right about that, then English also “had no word” for transparency in the relevant sense, which is why we re-purposed the word to use it in this more metaphorical way. And this leads naturally into the second absurdity of the no-Swahili-word-for-transparency argument:
  • The fact that a society doesn’t have a word for a given concept doesn’t mean that the society lacks the concept. There’s no English word for schadenfreude or détente or chutzpah, but it would be absurd to claim that English-speaking societies lack these concepts, or even that they’re concepts that English speakers lacked before exposure to the foreign terms. (Indeed, the main reason those words have been incorporated into English-speakers’ repertoires is precisely because they capture familiar concepts for which English lacked a succinct single word. And notice I just used the word “repertoire” without even thinking about it! But of course, the English language has no word for “repertoire” – so presumably I must have difficulty with that concept? Or something?) So even if it were true (which, again, it isn’t) that there’s no Swahili word for transparency, that would tell us approximately nothing about whether Swahili-speakers are familiar with the concept of (government) transparency.
  • Finally, even if it were true (though it isn’t) that there were no Swahili word for transparency, and even if it were true (though it isn’t) that the absence of a word in a language implied a cultural unfamiliarity with the concept described by that word, this is mostly irrelevant to the issue at hand, because languages and cultures can change quickly enough to recognize the existence and importance of the new item or concept described by a new word. A century ago, neither Swahili speakers nor anyone else had a word for (or concept of) television. The English-speaking world got that technology first and coined a term. The Swahili word for television is televisheni – clearly borrowed from the English word. But is this evidence that Swahili-speakers don’t understand or care about televisions? Because televisions were invented elsewhere and for which the Swahili language lacked an indigenous word? Absurd. And lest you think I’m stacking the deck by using concrete rather than abstract nouns as examples, consider the fact that the term “fascism” wasn’t coined until the 1920s. Another example: the Chinese language didn’t have a word for “communism” prior to the 20th century… but that lack of linguistic and cultural familiarity didn’t seem to prevent the concept from gaining plenty of cultural traction.

Again, I don’t want to make too much of one offhand comment by one person at an informal workshop. After all, I haven’t seen anything like this linguistic-determinism claim in scholarly articles or official publications of reputable organizations that work on corruption. But at the same time, it does seem like these ideas are floating out there and bubble up from time to time, with various bloggers or other commentators occasionally claiming (absurdly and falsely) that there’s no Chinese or Russian word for transparency, that there’s no Thai word for corruption, and so forth.

I also don’t want to be misunderstood as suggesting either that linguistic history patterns can’t sometimes tell us something interesting about cultural evolution, or that paying attention to the salience and connotations of different terms in different cultures isn’t important to formulating effective rhetorical or political strategies. For example, John Githongo wrote an essay last year arguing that in many African languages (including Swahili), the modern words for “corruption” are relatively new inventions that lack strong cultural resonance, and that applying words like “thief” and “theft” to corrupt officials and their conduct would be more effective for instilling shame on the part of the officials and outrage on the part of citizens. (I suspect that the professor whose comment motivated this post might have been thinking of this essay, but badly mis-construed or mis-remembered Mr. Githongo’s actual argument.) Mr. Githongo may well be right – I certainly have no reason to doubt his expertise here – but his claim is quite different from the assertion, which I hope never to hear again, that such-and-such language lacks a word for this-or-that concept, and therefore those who speak that language have difficulty grasping the concept.

3 thoughts on “The Swahili Word for Transparency, and the Fallacies of Linguistic Determinism

  1. Interesting read. I am also intrigued by the word corruption when I seek to translate in my Nepali language. We commonly equate “bhrastachar” in Nepali with corruption in English. Here is my dilemma: In English, I can easily say “My computer files have been corrupted (by virus).” It will be absurd translation in Nepali if I use Nepali word “bhrasta” for “corrupted” in the above sentence. Unlike what Mat has argued here, I do see problem in using native words as English equivalent of corruption. This has to do with the root factor in the construction of the words. The English word corruption stands for something decaying, dying, not in a natural order. The Nepali word “bhrastachar” is derived from the combination of “bhrasta” meaning corrupted and “achar” meaning conduct. Literal translation will mean corrupted conduct or behavior. There is more a moral flavor or standard in Nepali word for corruption (bhrastachar) than a natural state in English. Sorry, if people find difficulty to understand my arguement here. This is, obviously, due to language problem. My point is: I do not buy the professor’s idea but I do see problems when trying to translate words and concepts in other languages.

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