Getting to grips with our languages

By Tessa Dowling

How are you? Unjani? O jwang?

If you’re feeling unloved, uninspired, ignored or just plain fed up, try greeting in an African language. Your world will light up, sparks will fly, it will be, quite simply, ama-zing!

Why? Well, it’s because, first of all, in African culture, that simple question, “How are you?” is asked with meaning, and the asker has time – I think it was the Arch1 who said, “God gave whites watches and Africans time” – to actually hear your reply and mind about it.

He or she really really, really wants to know how you are. But even if it’s a quickie – a “Howzit, my bru?” kind of greeting – in an African language, it is still fun, fulsome and, like, cool dude. So let’s relax in our slacks, chill, phola and take the time to greet and even get going with harmonising our hows, repeating sounds like – just listen to the repetition – Zithini ezintsha? (What’s new? Whassup?)

Taking time – the rural

“How are you?” Once, walking in the mountains of Lesotho, I came across a woman who seemed to be carrying a whole house on her head – honestly, there was a door, a window frame, the roof even – but when I called out a greeting to her – “Kgotso, mme, o phela jwang?” (Literally: Peace, ma’am, how are you living?) she stopped, rocked a little to balance the residence on her cranium, and replied graciously, showing real interest in me, “Ke teng. Wena o kae?” (I am here. And you, where are you?) There is something so beautiful about that soft, melodious question, O kae? Where are you? In your life? In your mind? Maybe… in your heart? Say it again, this time softly, with love and affection, as if delicately balancing the friendship of the whole world on your head: O (you) kae (where)? Another beauteous thing about O kae? is that it is a generic Sotho question – it works in Pedi, Sotho and Tswana (pronounced oo-kah-ee).

Howzit, my bru?

In the townships, if you’re a dude, it’s all about being cool. Cooler than the coolest beer from the coolest fridge in the coolest shebeen. And being cool means you don’t rush. So the quick “Howzit, my bru?” gets a full makeover when rendered in township slang. Check – you take the twosyllable How-zit? and you make it three syllables, just for rhythm, for style.

Heyta! Wuzethi? (Hi! Howzit?)

Moja, bra! (Cool, dude!)

Moja, moja, s’khokho. (Cool, cool, gangster.)

That’s what happens in the township: you go all modern, then you find a legend of a word, like ukhokho (ancestor), and you change its prefix so that its meaning changes entirely too – s’khokho (gangster/tough guy) – and it works! It’s cool.

Harmonious hows!

What’s also super cool is seeing how much harmony (literally) African languages create, by repeating sounds found in the noun. So in Sotho you will have Se jwang Sesotho? How is Sotho? Bo jwang bophelo? How is the health? In Nguni languages, the same questions are translated as Sinjani isiSuthu? Injani impilo?

The Zulus have the last say

When things are not going well, English and Afrikaans speakers kind of shrug disconsolately and might say something like, “Things are a bit tough hey, a bit tough.” But a Zulu speaker has this gem of an expression as a way of indicating that life is not as good as it could be: they say Sisabacasula abasizondayo (We still nauseate those who hate us).

You see, you can’t deny it. Greetings in African languages are deeper, cooler and, well, yes, more meaningful. Try them out, something momentous might happen!

Tessa Dowling is Adjunct Professor, African Languages section, School of Languages and Literatures at the University of Cape Town. In this series, she explores the richness of our various African languages. Dowling is the founder of African Voices – a collection of multimedia, print and audio materials for those wishing to learn a South African language. A full list of materials – with details of how to order can be found on the website www.africanvoices.co.za

Filed Under: Summer 2011

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