Village of the dots: The name Kijiji

Originally published Jul 11, 2007

We’re really getting a chance to enjoy the graphic possibilities of the letters i and j lately. If you’re a blogger you can put a Lijit Wijit on your blog. And now there’s Kijiji. Actually, there has been Kijiji for a while now in other countries, but eBay has just launched a U.S. version of this local classified ad network, putting them in direct competition with Craigslist.

Just look at all those dots and vertical lines. When the name is written in a serif font, as it is in the company logo, the dots look like heads, the vertical lines look like torsos, and the serifs look like arms reaching out in a welcoming embrace or unbridled enthusiasm or something else great like that. You would be forgiven for thinking that this unusual name was invented just to achieve this graphical effect. But actually kijiji is a Swahili word meaning ‘village’. It’s a diminutive form of the word mji, which means ‘town’. So it’s almost as if in Swahili they call a village a townlet.

Why choose Swahili for the name of an international network of classified ad sites? There are two good reasons. First, Swahili is a lingua franca–a common language used for business by speakers of other languages–in East Africa. Native speakers live in and around Tanzania.

Second, Swahili syllables tend to conform to what phonologists consider the universally preferred syllable structure, which is a single consonant followed by a single vowel, represented CV. (An exception is the first syllable of the word mji, which consists entirely of the nasal [m] sound. That may seem exotic, but in English we actually have syllables consisting only of nasal sounds, like the final syllable of the word button. We just don’t put those syllables at the beginnings of words.)

What does it mean for the CV syllable to be universally preferred? For one thing, it means kids produce this kind of syllable first when acquiring language. It also means that this kind of syllable is found throughout the languages of the world, while other kinds of syllable are more likely not to be allowed in this or that language. Most importantly, it means that in theory just about everybody in the world should find it pretty easy to pronounce this name.

About the first part of Kijiji: Have you studied French or Spanish or German or some other language and struggled with the system of grammatical gender? Well, if you didn’t enjoy that, steer clear of Swahili. It has more than ten genders, or noun classes, as they’re commonly called. Each noun starts with a prefix like ki- or m-showing its class. When a noun is used as a subject, verbs and some other words must be marked for agreement with its class prefix. At least the noun classes are based more on meaning than the random gender systems of other languages are, so it’s often easy to guess which class a word belongs to.

Anyway, The Name Inspector is getting off topic. How does this name do in English? Well, it’s actually a little hard to pronounce, preferred syllable structure notwithstanding. The two affricate sounds followed by high front vowels are kind of awkward to squeeze out. And despite the graphical gimmick of the name (or perhaps because of it), the orthography is a little hard to parse. When you see this name on the page or the screen, it looks like a bunch of scratches–it’s hard to distinguish the letters.

So this name makes perfect sense from a semantic and sociolinguistic point of view, but it suffers from the very orthographic and phonetic properties that make it special.

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