Yesu Azali Awa (Jesus Is Here)

Yesu azali awa na biso. ‘Jesus is here among us.’
Biso tokomona ye na lola. ‘We will see him in heaven.’
Biso tokosepela na Yesu. ‘We will rejoice in Jesus.’

The song “Yesu Azali Awa” is a worship song that comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The song is in Lingala, a trade language spoken by about 10 million people in the DRC and the Republic of the Congo (www.ethnologue.com/language/lin). It is part of the large Bantu language family, which encompasses most African languages spoken south of the Equator. Meeuwis (2010) provides a nice discussion of the history of the language.

When I lived in the DRC in the 1990s, “Yesu Azali Awa” was sung quite often in the local church. There was also a version that played on the radio. You can listen to it here (warning: it has a lot of verses!):

I’ve tried to track down the authorship of the song, but to no avail. What can be said is that the melody bears a striking resemblance to the verse of “When the Roll is Called up Yonder.” I suspect that when missionaries introduced that song to the local people in the DRC, someone borrowed elements of the melody to create “Yesu Azali Awa.”

I often get requests for a translation of the words into English. I’ve provided them at the top of this post, but as a linguist, I’m driven to add a bit more analysis. So here goes… Below is an interlinearization of the verses. The first line shows the sentence in Lingala. The second line shows a morpheme-by-morpheme parse. The third line shows a gloss for each morpheme in English. (Abbreviations are defined afterwards.) The fourth line is a free translation of the sentence.

Yesu azali awa na biso
Yesu a-zal-i awa na biso
Jesus 3SG-be-PRES here at 1PL
‘Jesus is here among us.’

Biso tokomona ye na lola
Biso to-ko-mon-a ye na lola
1PL 1PL-FUT-see-FV 3SG at sky
‘We will see him in heaven.’

Biso tokosepela na Yesu
Biso to-ko-sepel-a na Yesu
1PL 1PL-FUT-rejoice-FV at Jesus
‘We will rejoice in Jesus.’

The preposition na is a semantically broad word, which can mean ‘at’, ‘of’, ‘in’, ‘with’, ‘among’, ‘and’, ‘on’, or ‘from’, depending on the context.

Both biso (an independent pronoun) and to- (a prefix on the verb) encode the same information (1st person plural). In Lingala, biso is usually dropped, so it would be quite natural to say, Tokomona ye na lola. Biso is added when one wants to emphasize the subject of the sentence. I suspect it’s included in the song for the sake of the meter.

The pronunciation of ‘Jesus’ in Lingala depends on the church you attend. The Protestants pronounce the name ‘Yesu’ while the Catholics pronounce it ‘Yezu.’

Perhaps all this will inspire some people to become linguists!

– Ken Olson

Abbreviations

3SG – 3rd person singular (‘he/she, him/her’)
1PL – 1st person plural (‘we, us’)
FUT – future
FV – final vowel. To my knowledge, this doesn’t have any meaning. It’s added so that the verb fits proper Lingala syllable structure.
PRES – This is a tense marker that indicates an action or state that occurs at the present time, or has just occurred. Guthrie & Carrington (1988:44) call it the ‘near past’, while Meeuwis (1998:28-29) calls it the ‘present’.

References

Guthrie, Malcolm & John F. Carrington. 1988. Lingala grammar and dictionary. Didcot, England: Baptist Missionary Society.

Meeuwis, Michael. 1998. Lingala. (Languages of the World/Materials 261.) Munich: Lincom Europa.

Meeuwis, Michael. 2010. A grammatical overview of Lingála. (LINCOM Studies in African Linguistics 81.) Munich: Lincom Europa.

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