Euphemism use as a mirror of the people's worldview: the case of the Abagusii Dirges of Kenya.

Author:Maoncha, Job Nyamamba


This paper examines the euphemisms used in selected Bagusii dirges and how they reflect the ideologies and the general worldview of the community. The Bagusii are a Bantu speaking ethnic group, that is part of the Western Kenya region found in the Nyanza region. The culture of the Bagusii is characterized by a domestic model of social order and its concept of avoidance (Levine, Dixon, Richman, Leiderman, Keefer, and Brazelton, 1994: 60). Avoidance here is used to mean the intentional act of refraining from doing or saying something and it is taken seriously in this community.

The ethical principle which governs the conduct of family members and society at large is known as nsoni. Nsoni exists between generations once removed from each other and it is worth noting that this still exists even today. Within each generation, however, there is no restriction of what can be said. People in the same generation do not have matters of nsoni.

Autonomous homesteads known as emechie (homes) represent the domestic unit. Daily tasks within this home was determined by sex and age of the person. Traditionally, the women were primarily responsible for food cultivation and processing, cooking, brewing, fetching water and firewood, and cleaning of the house and the homestead. The community to date still regards women and mothers as the home-makers (Maoncha, 2015). Men were tasked with providing protection and security, building houses and fencing, clearing new fields and herding. Though women performed most of the cultivation, men participated too. Herding was undertaken by boys and young unmarried men in the cattle village. Initiated daughters assisted in cultivation (Levine, 1962). Concerning socialization, mothers have the ultimate responsibility for the care and socialization of their children, but they delegate a great deal of caretaking and training to other children.

Ekegusii songs have been part of oral literature and have been used to comment on various aspects in the society, both traditional and even current. A dirge is a sombre song or lament expressing mourning or grief. It is a song especially intended to accompany a funeral or provide a memorial to the deceased. The dirges told the story and history of the deceased, therefore educated the mourners about the deceased and they expressed the community's worldview on the issue of death.

Death is a taboo for human beings and an inevitable social norm. In all societies and almost all languages, death is the most sensitive and fearful subject people try to avoid mentioning. As a result of this, people have traditionally felt reluctant to deal with the topic of death using straightforward expressions. They prefer not to speak freely about death. However, there are communication situations in which one cannot evade the notion of death. In this case, language users try to soften the effect of what they wish to communicate.

Euphemisms are expressions which are often used to avoid those words that are considered taboo. That is, they are used to avoid unpleasant, hateful or sad words and expressions. They serve as a veil, and they substitute these expressions and words with more pleasant, less shocking ones according to necessity. For one's own sake as well as that of hearers, a speaker constantly resorts to euphemisms in order to disguise an unpleasant truth or veil an offence.

Rawson (1981:1) believes that euphemisms are powerful linguistic tools that "are embedded so deeply in our language that few of us, even those who pride themselves on being plainspoken, ever get through a day without using them." For Allan and Burridge (1991:14), euphemisms are "alternatives to dispreferred expressions (expressions likely to draw embarrassment because they refer to taboo concepts such as bodily effluvia, reproductive processes and the associated parts--may also include religious terms) and are used in order to avoid possible loss of face". Face here is used to mean "that image of self, that is, selfrespect or dignity that a person effectively claims for oneself during the course of conversational interaction" Goffman 1959: 208-12.

As happens in other languages, euphemism is used to facilitate communication in Ekegusii. Euphemism as a form of language is profoundly influenced by culture. The culture of a people has an effect on the people's way of avoiding taboo words and their choices of euphemism. The Bagusii as any other speech community have a way of mentioning taboo words. As a result, Ekegusii speakers use special terms to communicate some ideas that are often considered difficult to express because either appropriate words are lacking or the ideas are too embarrassing to mention publicly. For instance, in mentioning the dead, the Bagusii call them euphemistically as Nyagosira meaning the one who has gone missing, instead of Nyagokwa meaning the one who has died.

Nyakoe (2012) in her thesis has explored the conceptualization of "death as a Journey" and "death as rest" within the framework of Conceptual Metaphor theory. Findings from her work reveal that Ekegusii euphemism has several conceptual metaphors for death and as a result one could reason about the dead, the dying or death using knowledge of something else. She mainly focused on the two metaphors found in everyday speech at such occasions. Further, she has explored this death metaphor used in the Bagusii everyday speech when talking about death. She looks at the metaphor of (death as a rest) and her research discusses the Bagusii view of death as a rest. Her study was mainly focused on the two metaphors found in everyday speech at such occasions. This paper sets out to establish how the euphemisms used in dirges purpose to mirror the Bagusii's worldview.

Methodology and Theoretical Orientation

This study was conducted in Kisii County. Five in-depth interview respondents were drawn from Mogonga sub-location and Nyabisia sub-location of Gucha sub-county. One Focus group discussion was formulated and respondents for this focus group were drawn from Mogonga and Magena sub-locations of the wider Bombaba East location. The sample consisted of men and women aged between 60 years and 95 years. The decision on the choice of the elderly aged 60-95 years was informed by the fact that this is the group that was most conversant with the funeral practices in the traditional society because the younger generation was found to have little knowledge since the practice is dying out and is being replaced with the Christian ones (Maoncha,2015).

Purposive sampling, a non-probability approach was used to identify the elderly men and women to participate in the in-depth interviews. The researchers successfully conducted five in-depth interviews with the elderly men and women selected through the snowball--sampling strategy. These interviews were solely guided by the interview schedule developed for this purpose. The interview schedule was prepared in line with the objectives of the study. The interview schedule discusses the knowledge of dirges, the singing of the actual songs, who sings them, for whom and social cultural limitations in their performance, alongside their meanings and usage.

A qualitative method of research was adapted for this study. This study was also designed as a case study with the advantage of enabling an understanding of the euphemisms used in the dirges as understood and interpreted by the very people who use them. The descriptive research design was selected for this study because it enabled the researchers to determine and report the way things are; the descriptive research design helped the researchers to describe the possible behaviour and attitudes of the respondents (Mugenda and Mugenda, 1999). Under this design, the interview method was used as a data collection instrument which involved a face to face interaction with respondents.

Through in-depth interviews with the old men and women, data on the funeral songs and explanations as regards to meaning and usage was collected. Through focus group interviews and discussions with the sampled group, the study was able to get the euphemisms that were in the songs, their meanings and usage and get more that could be used as substitutes for the same that were not present in the songs.

Data Analysis and Interpretation

Data collected was analyzed qualitatively. Qualitative methods of research enabled the researchers to analyze and explain his research findings more deeply and exhaustively (Mugenda and Mugenda, 1999). Besides, qualitative research methods of data analysis helped the researchers to better understand the subjective perspectives of the participants by collecting data (verbatim responses), that enabled us develop a descriptive, rich understanding and insight into their attitudes, shared beliefs, aspirations and culture that define their view of the world.

The paper utilizes traditional theories of Politeness as proposed by Brown and Levinson (1978/1987). These theories of Politeness emphasize an individual's rationality and face as they use language in communication. These theories also hold it that different cultures agree on what to them politeness is. Politeness is closely related to Face Theory, proposed by Goffman (1953/1959). The...

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