Getting to grips with our languages

| June 25, 2014 | 1 Comment

By Tessa Dowling

My students are a tired bunch.

They drag themselves into class with hooded eyes, clutching cups of coffee, cellphones and each other in a weary, lugubrious manner, as if to warn me not to expect too much of them. Because they’re, like, “so tired, hey.” Exhausted. Today in class one girl yawned (at the risk of sending you to sleep, I would just like to point out here that ‘yawn’ in all Sotho languages is edimola and in Xhosa and Zulu zamla and zamula) so much I thought she was listening to a political speech. When I ask these exhausted, drained, pooped students what they like to do over the weekend, their favourite reply is to (wearily) advance their preference: Sithanda ukulala. (Xhosa and Zulu for “We like to sleep.”) What happened to youthful exuberance?!

Wake up!

If only they would get the oomph to do their homework, they would realise that talking about sleeping and exhaustion in African languages is paradoxically energising and entertaining! So while the African language words for the verb ‘sleep’ are standard (Sotho languages: robala; Nguni languages: lala), there are other expressions that suggest that there is so much more to sleep in Africa than just putting your head on a pillow and ‘zzzzzzzz-ing’. Interesting to see how similar the word for ‘snore’ is for our South African languages: ona (North Sotho), hona (South Sotho and Zulu), gona (Tswana), rhona (Xhosa). I think if we were giving a prize for onomatopoeic verbs, the Xhosa rhona would win – it has a very snore-like pronunciation! (Remember, the ‘rh’ in Xhosa is pronounced a little like the Afrikaans ‘g’.) ‘GGGGGGoooooonnnnnaaaaaa!’

‘Twas the dawn that did it

Let’s stay awake by marvelling at the notion of ‘oversleeping’, for example. In African languages, you do not overdo the sleeping at all. No, hayi bo! What happens is that the day dawns to your detriment, i.e. while you are still fast asleep, the implication being that the sun should have waited for you to wake up before it did its rising. Thus, it is not the sleeping that should be emphasised or even mentioned. What is important is the fact that the day has dawned to your disadvantage. Like, too early for the amount of sleep that you needed to have.

Thus: Ndiselwe and Ngiselwe (figuratively: ‘I have overslept’ in Xhosa and Zulu). Let me break it down for you. Ndi-/Ngi- means ‘I’. The verb – s – is ‘dawn’. The extension – el – is used here to mean ‘to the detriment of ’ when used with the passive – we.

Thus literally: I have been dawned for to my detriment. A North Sotho speaker agreed with this interpretation of mine, the slight difference in that language being that O setše (‘You overslept’) means the dawn fell on you while you were sleeping.

Is translation tiring?

Insomnia is also referred to in this indirect way, as something that happens to you. Thus, the Xhosa say Ndiphuthelwe when they have insomnia, which literally means ‘I have been failed [by sleep] to my detriment’.

The issue of getting tired in Xhosa and Zulu could confuse you enough to make you exhausted. You see, khathala in Xhosa means ‘care for’, but in Zulu it means ‘get tired’. So the Zulu woman’s gentle command Mus’ ukukhathala, mntanam (‘Do not get tired, my child’) would mean ‘Do not care, my child’ to a Xhosa speaker. But it makes you think, doesn’t it? Caring too much makes you fret, which can stop you sleeping! So ‘Try not to get worried, everything’s alright, we want you to sleep well tonight’. And uzolala kamnandi! (Xhosa and Zulu for ‘You will sleep well!’)

When Xhosa speakers are really tired, they think of sugar cane bending in the wind: Andidinwanga, ndiyimfe. (‘I am so tired I am a sugar cane.’) The image of the sugar cane is used because it looks like its head or top is lolling sleepily in the wind.

We speak beautifully – even in our sleep!

As my students are all so tired, I am going to ask them to think about other images of weary nature that could make them describe their exhaustion more adequately than ‘I am so tired’. Or are we just a worn-out ‘na-eishon’, with no new ideas? No, I think if we sleep on it, we will see we have a unique and enthusiastic way of looking at the world. Even when that world is fast asleep, so beautifully expressed in Xhosa as: Ilele cum (‘It is intensely asleep’).

Category: Winter 2014

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  1. Yolandi says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your writing!!! How beautifully descriptive our African languages are!

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