This is a page from the Kamusi archives. The information below may be out of date, and the links may no longer be valid. Please visit kamusi.org for current information. If you know of links or information on this page that can be updated, please let us know.
Many articles have appeared recently in newspapers around the world about a disease called "Chikungunya," which is similar to dengue fever. The term is INCORRECTLY said to derive from Swahili, meaning "that which bends up." With the help of Charles Riley, an African collections specialist at the Yale library, we offer the following information.
The first article to describe the disease was written by Marion Robinson. It appeared as "An Epidemic of Virus Disease in Southern Province, Tanganyika Territory, in 1952-53; I. Clinical Features," in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Volume 49, Number 1, January 1955.
You can download the article in pdf format here
Robinson writes the following on page 28. Notice that she does NOT state that the language is Swahili. Rather, she says that the term is a local name from the Makonde Plateau, an area where Swahili would not have been predominant in the 1950s. The assertion that the term comes from Swahili was in all likelihood first made by a later writer who read Robinson's article, knew that Swahili was the most widely spoken language in the region, and made the mistaken assumption that Swahili was the language to which Robinson referred. Here is the original quotation:
The epidemic to be described occurred on the Makonde Plateau in the Southern Province of Tanganyika. It was clinically indistinguishable from dengue, if allowance is made for the inherent variability of that disease. Dengue has not been reported from the area before and no inhabitant can remember a similar epidemic. Owing to the distinctive severity of the joint pains and the sudden onset a local name was rapidly applied ; the disease became known as chikungunya, meaning- " that which bends up".
A second article in the same journal provides a more detailed derivation. The author was W. H. R. Lumsden. The article was "An Epidemic of Virus Disease in Southern Province, Tanganyika Territory, in 1952-53; II. General Description and Epidemiology," in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Volume 49, Number 1, January 1955.
You can download the article in pdf format here.
Lumsden clearly states that "chikungunya" comes from the MAKONDE language, not from Swahili. The word derives from the Makonde term for contortion, thus leading to the translation Robinson cites relating to "bending up." Here's the quotation from Lumsden:
The disease was at an early time given a Kimakonde name -- chikungunya. According to an educated local chief this word is derived from a root verb -- kungunyala -- meaning to dry up or become contorted, and signifies the cause of a contortion or folding. It is thought to be a new word only as applied to the disease, not as to its other uses which refer to the drying of leaves and the reaction of the sensitive plant.
We can therefore state beyond any doubt that "chikunguyna" is NOT a Swahili word, and almost certainly derives from the Makonde language. (We welcome any Makonde speakers to provide confirmation by replying to this message.) Unfortunately, the error has been repeated endlessly, so that Google now finds over 18,000 hits for "chikungunya swahili." While we cannot fix those mistakes, perhaps this brief posting will help prevent the further propagation of the erroneous claim that chikungunya is in any way derived from Swahili.
--Martin Benjamin, April 20, 2006
Follow-up, February 7, 2008. It is gratifying to note that news articles have increasingly made the correct reference to chikungunya as a Makonde word since this article first appeared. The contents of this article were summarized in Wikipedia, which has apparently been a first stop for journalists and scholars writing about the spread of the disease. As of this writing, Google only indexes 8,200 hits for "chikungunya swahili," and is now up to over 700 hits for "chikungunya makonde," including this Slate article. I hope the disease itself can be wiped out as effectively as the erroneous information about its linguistic derivation!
These are the languages for which we have datasets that we are actively working toward putting online. Languages that are Active for you to search are marked with "A" in the list below.
•A = Active language, aligned and searchable
•c = Data 🔢 elicited through the Comparative African Word List
•d = Data from independent sources that Kamusi participants align playing 🐥📊 DUCKS
•e = Data from the 🎮 games you can play on 😂🌎🤖 EmojiWorldBot
•P = Pending language, data in queue for alignment
•w = Data from 🔠🕸 WordNet teams
We are actively creating new software for you to make use of and contribute to the 🎓 knowledge we are bringing together. Learn about software that is ready for you to download or in development, and the unique data systems we are putting in place for advanced language learning and technology:
Our biggest struggle is keeping Kamusi online and keeping it free. We cannot charge money for our services because that would block access to the very people we most want to benefit, the students and speakers of languages around the world that are almost always excluded from information technology. So, we ask, request, beseech, beg you, to please support our work by donating as generously as you can to help build and maintain this unique public resource.
Answers to general questions you might have about Kamusi services.
We are building this page around real questions from members of the Kamusi community. Send us a question that you think will help other visitors to the site, and frequently we will place the answer here.