Interview with linguist Oliver Stegen

Today, we speak with Oliver Stegen the man behind the Swahili translation of Bilbo’s Aragorn poem !

Oliver Stegen was born and grew up in rural Northern Germany where he found his calling at the age of 14: he was to be a linguist. After completing his M.A., he moved to Tanzania together with his family to work with the international organisation SIL. For ten years, they lived and worked in Kondoa District among the Rangi people, first learning Swahili, and then the Rangi language. In May 2011, he successfully defended his thesis “In search of a vernacular writing style for the Rangi of Tanzania: Assumptions, challenges, processes”. He currently advises linguistically a number of SIL’s language projects in Northern Tanzania and Uganda.

Despite devoting a lot of his time to his work at SIL and to editing Swahili Wikipedia, Oliver Stegen has participated in several other projects, among which :

  • Google’s “Kiswahili Wikipedia Challenge” and “HealthSpeaks”
  • The Kenyan Wikimedia Chapter which he co-founded
  • The Institute for Natural Church Development (World Summit in Johannesburg, 2004)
  • SACHES (Southern African Comparative and History of Education Society), as affiliated member of their executive committee 2005-2008
  • NewTactics, as featured resource practitioner at their November 2011 online dialogue on “Using citizen media tools to promote under-represented languages”
  • ANLoc (the African Network for Localization)
  • Translators Without Borders

You are a linguist at heart. What do you find most exciting about your work?      

My linguistic interests have certainly changed over the years. It may be symptomatic that my MA was in theoretical linguistics whereas my PhD (almost 20 years later) was in applied linguistics. I started out being fascinated by language structures like sound correspondences between related languages. However, once I had worked in an actual minority language and seen the impact of literacy on mother tongue speakers, I was sold on the development of literature (both original and translated) and of vernacular writing style. Among the most exciting highlights of my work must be those moments when a newly published vernacular book reaches the hands of someone who sees his or her mother tongue in print for the first time. Very rewarding that!

How did you come to choose East Africa as your base?       

Ha! My wife and I had originally wanted to work in Siberia (we both had learned Russian in our teens and were interested in the changes of socialist societies after the Berlin Wall had fallen; we actually grew up on different sides of it). But when that door closed (we simply couldn’t get any positions there, merely being young linguists fresh out of college), we were contemplating Anglophone Africa, both for cultural and linguistic reasons. SIL, the organisation we work for, had a number of openings in Tanzania, and the Rangi language project appealed to us. After ten years in rural Tanzania, our family of five has now been living in Nairobi since 2007 – which is an easier location for our children’s education and for travel to the various language projects in East Africa which I am advising linguistically now.

Could you tell us a bit about your involvement in the Rangi language documentation and expansion of language use?

As I believe in participatory research, i.e. involving mother tongue speakers in the research itself right from the start, I spent a lot of time visiting Rangi villages and talking to elders, government officials and school teachers. Then, our family lived for two years in the village of Mʉnéen’ya (Mnenia in Swahili spelling) in order to learn the Rangi language. Initially, the focus was on helping those small groups of interested Rangi speakers to devise an orthography and to publish literacy materials.

After a few years of very humble beginnings (which saw the production of an alphabet chart, of a primer and of a story booklet), a couple of Rangi speakers joined us full-time – two as literacy supervisors and two as Bible translators under an affiliated interdenominational Bible translation project. This meant that the focus shifted to training our Rangi colleagues in topics ranging from literacy teaching to discourse analysis. On the academic side, I endeavoured to document and publish the results of our linguistic research (the academic publications can be found here).

I continue to take an interest in further expansion of the Rangi language. For example, last year we started a Rangi chatgroup on Facebook which now boasts well over 300 members with daily traffic predominantly in Rangi.

I gather that you are also very active in the online Swahili-speaking community. What have you learnt from this experience over the years?             

Well, my knowledge of the online Swahili-speaking community is actually restricted to the Swahili wikipedia community; I wouldn’t be familiar with, for example, the Swahili-speaking blogging scene. Still, my involvement with the Swahili wikipedia has shown me how much there is still to be done when it comes to the online representation of general information in languages other than English. And if Swahili is severely under-represented, even though it is spoken by tens of millions of people and is the national language of two major East African nations, what about the hundreds of smaller languages which are not officially recognised, yet whose speakers rely on their mother tongues as their major and often only medium of communication? These languages are needed just as much for the acquisition of education and for all kinds of literacy practices in everyday life. That is why I am promoting the use of regional and local languages as much as possible (unless I’m trying to reach an international audience like in this interview). There is much more room to use local languages on the web, from writing your Facebook status updates in local languages to building vernacular dictionaries on Wikimedia’s incubator or, as I said earlier, initiating local language chatgroups.

What are your current topics of interest?     

I am both a networker and an academic, so I love to bring people together who can mutually benefit from cooperation and exchange of information. Currently, I am investigating the opportunities connected with pro-bono translation – on the one hand, I am in contact with Translators Without Borders who are doing an excellent job and have just expanded into East African languages; on the other hand, I am learning Spanish via Duolingo with the hope of applying that approach to Swahili.

On the linguistic research front, I am working together with a colleague on functions of rhetorical questions in East African languages (particularly Swahili and a couple of local Tanzanian languages which we are familiar with; yes, Rangi is among them) and on the implications for translating rhetorical questions. Also, I am looking into the development of Swahili as an academic language (I have been sitting on a nice data corpus for a couple of years now which just waits to have a detailed discourse analysis conducted on it).

In addition to all of those responsibilities, activities and interests plus the megalomaniac project of translating Tolkien into Swahili (mentioned in your previous post), I am probably collecting enough projects for a very busy retirement – which, Mungu akipenda, won’t be due for another quarter of a century.

What is your favourite Rangi proverb? (with translation please!!) 

That’s easy, I even have it printed on a t-shirt: Mʉʉ́mba njʉlʉ adoma, mʉʉ́mba masáare akaarɨ afíindaa. Literally, “the creator of mountains went away, the creator of words is still sculpting.” This illustrates nicely that there are certain things in our environment which we cannot change but with words, we most certainly can continue to be creative.

Haya, tusonge mbele katika kuboresha dunia yetu; let’s get on with making our world a better place!

Haba na haba, ñore-ñore, ten-ten and dɔɔnin-dɔɔnin [English translation]

Following last week’s post about the Swahili proverb ‘Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba’, Oumar Bah shares some thoughts with us and draws a parallel with the guerzé, pular and bambara languages.

[Cliquer ici pour voir la version originale en Français]


It took my fancy to look for equivalents in other African languages to this beautiful Swahili proverb ‘haba na haba hujaza kibaba‘ whose French version would be « petit à petit l’oiseau fait son nid » (little by little, the bird builds its nest)

  • Guerzé

Much to my surprise, there is language, namely guerzé (a language spoken in south-east Guinea),whose equivalent proverb is almost identical to the Swahili ‘Haba na haba …’ .

The Guerzé are an agricultural people who are mainly found around Nzérékoré region, at the foot of Mount Nimba. Their traditional land has been arbitrarily divided during the ‘scramble for Africa’ and hence it spills out into neighbouring Liberia where the Guerzé are known as Kpɛlɛ.

So, here is the proverb:

Ten-ten bə now hɔya

Literal translation: « Drop by drop, the earthen pot gets filled up » (during the preparation of palm wine, a very popular drink in the region, the pot is filled up slowly, drop after drop).

If we delve into a bit of linguistic analysis for this guerzé sentence, we find that ten means „drop“,  is a relative connector, now „earthenware pot“, is a verb root meaning „to fill“ and the suffx -ya probably carries an aspect value ( I have access to very little information concerning guerzé, as this language has been quite scarcely documented).

  • Pular

Ko ñore-ñore hebbinta maayo. Photo by Marie-Laure Le Guen

In pular or fula, another guinean and west African language, there is an equivalent which, contrary to Swahili and guerzé, does not stem from the analogy to an earthenware pot but to a river being filled up little by little:

Ko ñore-ñore hebbinta maayo

Literally : « It is the drizzle that fills up the river »

And here is the linguistic analysis : ko is a locative  marker, ñore-ñore means „drizzle“, hebbina is the causative  form of the verb heewa „to fill up“, the suffx -ta denotes in this case the imperfective aspect, maayo means « river ».

  • Bambara

Spoken in neighbouring Mali, the bambara language has a proverb which matches the French saying word for word, at least according to the online dictionnary :

Dɔɔnin-dɔɔnin, kɔnɔnin bɛ a ɲaa da

Literally : « Little by little, the bird builds its nest »

Linguistic analysis: dɔɔnin-dɔɔnin « little by little », kɔnɔnin « bird (diminutive form = little bird) », bɛ (imperfective aspect marker), ɲaa « nest », da « to create, to build »

  • The proverb in songs

Let us highlight that, in Guinea like in Kenya, artists have drawn on this theme: around 1970-1971, Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz National produced a rhumba song entitled « doni doni » that made the delight of music lovers in Africa and beyond.

The lyrics are in French but the chorus « Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid » is translated into malinké, another Guinean language which is closely related to bambara.

This song is also available on Youtube :

Lastly, here is the German equivalent of this proverb:

Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein

Literally : « A constant drop can hollow out the stone »


A heartfelt thank you to Oumar Bah for enlightening us!

Written by Oumar Bah.

English translation by Marie-Laure Le Guen

Haba na haba, ñore-ñore, ten-ten et dɔɔnin-dɔɔnin [en Français]

Suite au post de la semaine dernière à propos du proverbe Swahili ‘Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba’, Oumar Bah nous fait part de ses réflexions et établit un parallèle avec le guerzé, le pular et le bambara.

[Click here to view the English translation]


Je me suis amusé à chercher des équivalents de ce beau proverbe swahili ‘haba na haba hujaza kibaba‘ dont l’équivalent en français est « petit à petit l’oiseau fait son nid » dans d’autres idiomes africains.

  • Guerzé

À ma grande surprise, il existe une langue ayant un équivalent pratiquement identique avec celui du swahili, il s’agit du guerzé, une langue du sud-est de la Guinée.

Les Guerzés qui sont un peuple d’agriculteurs se concentrant autour de la région de Nzérékoré, au pied du Mont Nimba. Leur terroir traditionnel a été arbitrairement découpé par le partage colonial et déborde donc sur le Libéria voisin où ils sont connus sous le nom de Kpɛlɛ.

Voici donc le proverbe :

Ten-ten bə now hɔya

Traduction littérale : « Goutte après goutte, le canari se remplit » (pendant la préparation du vin de palme, boisson très prisée dans la région, le canari se remplit lentement goutte après goutte).

Si nous faisons un peu d’analyse linguistique de la phrase guerzée, ten signifie „goutte“, est une particule relative, now „canari“, est une racine verbale signifiant „remplir“ et le suffxe -ya a probablement une valeur aspectuelle (je dispose de très peu d’informations sur le guerzé car c’est une langue peu documentée).

  • Pular

Ko ñore-ñore hebbinta maayo

En pular ou peul, autre langue guinéenne et ouest-africaine, il existe un équivalent qui ne part pas, contrairement au swahili et au guerzé, de l’analogie du canari mais du fleuve qui se remplit petit à petit :

Ko ñore-ñore hebbinta maayo

Littéralement : « C’est le crachin (petite pluie fine) qui remplit le fleuve »

Analyse linguistique ici aussi : ko est une particule de focalisation, ñore-ñore signifie „crachin“, hebbina est la forme causative du verbe heewa „se remplir“, le suffxe -ta indique ici l’aspect imperfectif, maayo signifie « fleuve ».

  • Bambara

Le bambara, parlé au Mali voisin, a un proverbe qui correspond littéralement à la version française, du moins d’après le dictionnaire en ligne sur le site :

Dɔɔnin-dɔɔnin, kɔnɔnin bɛ a ɲaa da

Littéralement : « Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid »

Analyse linguistique : dɔɔnin-dɔɔnin « petit à petit », kɔnɔnin « oiseau (au diminutif) », bɛ (particule de l’aspect imperfectif), ɲaa « nid », da « créer, construire »

  • Le proverbe en chanson

Rappelons qu’en Guinée comme au Kenya, les artistes se sont saisis du thème : vers 1970 ou 71, le Bembeya Jazz National de Guinée avait produit un morceau de rumba intitulé « doni doni » qui avait fait le bonheur des mélomanes d’Afrique et d’ailleurs. Le morceau est chanté en français mais le refrain « Petit à petit l’oiseau fait son nid » est traduit en malinké, autre langue de Guinée très proche du bambara.

On peut trouver cette chanson aussi sur Youtube :

Pour terminer, voici la version allemande de ce proverbe :

Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein

Littéralement : « Une goutte constante peut creuser la pierre »


Un grand merci à Oumar Bah pour ces éclaircissements!

Swahili proverb: Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba

Words of the week: Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba (proverb)

Language: Kiswahili

Meaning (literal): Little by little, the container/pot gets filled.

  • Background

This hugely popular Swahili proverb was recently popularised by Kenyan artist Stella Mwangi  in her song ‘Haba Haba’ which all but propelled her to fame after it won the Eurovision Song Contest.

In spite of the missing ‘na’ supposed to connect ‘haba na haba’ in the original saying, the song conveys the meaning of the proverb quite faithfully and has the merit of creating an international buzz around the Swahili language.

  • Meaning

The literal translation of ‘haba na haba, hujaza kibaba‘ could be ‘Little by little, the container gets filled’. Simple in appearance and made pleasant to the ear by the use of alliteration, consonance and assonance, this proverb carries a deep significance.

While we may overlook small changes, they are the ones which, put together over time, eventually make a difference. Just like the pot becomes full if you keep pouring a few drops of water in it, learning a few words a day can lead you to acquiring proficiency in a language, saving a small amount of money every month may build you a fortune and smiling to strangers day after day can make the world a better place. This, to me, is a metaphor of hope.

Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba also highlights the value of patience and hard work in attaining one’s goals in life. One of the messages that I see as embedded in these wise words is that one should not expect to change a situation overnight but rather work towards the desired end in small, prudent but determined steps.

  • Brief Linguistic Analysis

The prefix hu-, denoting the habitual tense, expresses the time dimension contained in the phrase. It is used to conjugate the verb ‘kujaza‘ (to fill, to fill out), causative form of ‘kujaa‘ (to be full, to become full).

Kibaba designates a small pot or a container.

As a side note, it is interesting to remark that the word ‘haba not only means ‘little’ or ‘few’ but can sometimes be used to refer to affection, friendship or love. I like to contemplate this double meaning as really touching down to the essence of love, which has the power to bring little things together and make them great.