The Solution to the Swahili Puzzle

I would like to discuss the solution to one of the linguistics puzzles I posted a while ago. Here is problem number 211 from the online book Problems from Linguistics Olympiads 1965-1975:

You are given words in Swahili: mtu, mbuzi, jito, mgeni, jitu and kibuzi. Their translations in a different order are: giant, little goat, guest, goat, person and large river. Make the correspondence.

First, lets say that a giant is a large man. The Swahili translation of “giant” may have elements of Swahili words for a “man” and a “large river”. Next we notice that each of these Swahili words naturally divides into two parts. We can put them in a table such that the first part is the same for every row and the second part is the same for every column.

m-tu m-buzi m-geni
ji-tu ji-to
ki-buzi

When I gave this problem to my students, they loved the idea that the word “giant” is comprised of the two words “large” and “man”, so they assumed that in Swahili a “guest” would also have a two-part translation, such as a “man who visits.” In the list of words we have three different types of “man”: man, giant and guest. Once they noticed that “m” appears three times, they concluded that “m” must mean a man. Therefore, the object must be the first part of a Swahili word, while the second part contains its description.

Next, they noted that the first part “ji” appears twice. They decided that “ji” must be a goat and thus “ki” must be a river. All of this gives us sufficient information to derive the translations: “mgeni” a guest, “kibuzi” a large river, “mbuzi” a giant, “mtu” a man, “jitu” a goat and “jito” a little goat.

My students were very proud of themselves, but I was dissatisfied with this solution. Here are the problems I’ve identified:

  • If “buzi” means large, then what does “tu” mean?
  • If “tu” means normal size, then what is the size of the guest?
  • If everything is about sizes, then the descriptive part “geni” is an odd one out.
  • In a real language what part should be smaller: the one describing the size of the object or the one describing the object itself?

I would suggest a different approach. Let’s say that the puzzle is about sizes, and we have three objects (man, guest, goat) of normal size, two large objects (giant and large river), and one small object (little goat). That means “m” must mean normal, and the size description is in front. If the first part is the size, then “ki” is small, “ji” large. From here “mgeni” is a guest, “kibuzi” a little goat, “mbuzi” a goat, “mtu” a man, “jitu” a giant, and “jito” is a large river.

I love this puzzle because it teaches us to continue pondering, even after everything seems to fit. If you stumble upon the first solution you need to go back and think some more. Only after you discover the second solution does it become clear that the second one is right.

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