Don’t get in a tangle over telling the time in Swahili!

This week, our fabulous JLC finalists have started learning their third language before the final competition in October. Having flourished in Romanian and triumphed in Korean, they are now tackling the African Bantu language of Swahili.

Luckily for them, Swahili uses the Latin alphabet (one less thing to worry about!), but there is one peculiar difficulty to this language: those who already know their Swahili numbers tend to get in a bit of a twist when it comes to telling the time. That’s because Swahili time is 6 hours different to English time!

Most people realise this when they see the translation for ‘one o’clock’, which in Swahili is saa saba. Saba in Swahili means ‘seven’, so instantly there seems to have been some sort of error. Surely ‘one o’clock’ should be saa moja (moja meaning ‘one’)? Then they see that saa moja is the translation for ‘seven o’clock’, and the world starts spinning.

But it’s all perfectly logical, and once you’re aware of the reason, you can move on and make appointments and rendez-vous in Swahili as easily as in English. The key to remember is that whereas in English our day runs from midnight to midday, in Swahili the day starts at dawn and runs til dusk. In practice, this means that in English our 7AM is the seventh hour of the day, but in Swahili it’s the first hour of the day (i.e. the first hour after sunrise) and is therefore called ‘saa moja’ (one), not ‘saa saba’ (seven). English 8 o’clock is Swahili 2 o’clock, English 9 o’clock is Swahili 3 o’clock, and so on throughout the day.

And it’s not just Swahili that does this: Luganda, Kirundi and Kinyarwanda use the same time system!
Know of any other languages which tell the time differently to English? Let us know!

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