Getting to grips with our languages

| November 14, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Tessa Dowling

Food channels on TV, Masterchef, recipe books – it is all around us, this public display of our passion, our greed, our finger-licking love of eating.

Even the ethereal Virginia Woolf mused, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” and we know, for once, what she meant! And Sophia Loren’s sexy “all you see, I owe to spaghetti” is legendary and sends us rushing to our local Italian restaurant so we can slurp up some spaghetti bolognese and become film-star beautiful.

But what about the way food slips into our clichés, our sayings, our proverbs to mean something else: “It was a piece of cake”, “As easy as pie”, “She’s the big cheese”? How many times when you were embarrassed did you actually “get egg on your face”? I assume that if you read this column you are as “keen as mustard” to know about African languages. Well, they too have wonderful food references, and because I “know my onions”, I am going to give you a few to enjoy.

Locusts and lobola

There is the wonderfully robust Sotho expression that any glutton or over-caterer would welcome, Sejo segolo a se fete molomo (A lot of food can never be bigger than the mouth), meaning that food will always find its way into people’s stomachs, no matter how much there is. But just in case that expression makes you think Sothos are greedy, how about Bana bamotho ba kgaoganya tlhogo ya tsie (Siblings share the head of a locust), which figuratively means no matter how small the amount of food, people will always share it and there will always be enough.

The Zulus love inyama (which means both meat and flesh), and it is also popular in their idiomatic expressions. Young men who do not have enough money or cows for lobola (the bride price) can cheer themselves up by exclaiming, Bhavu! Nongenankomo uyayidla inyama (Hey! Even if you do not have a cow, you can enjoy meat). A bit risqué, perhaps, but what girl could resist such a lekker, idiomatic Zulu expression, uttered with such poetic passion?

Pumpkins and politicians

I know that my students might whisper about me, on seeing that once again I have failed to remember their names, Wadla impundu (She ate the mpundu – the part of meat eaten only by old women), which figuratively translates to “She forgets easily”, while about some of our politicians I hear the snarly Basika kwelinonile (They cut the fattest part of the meat) – meaning that they choose the best for themselves. This might explain why, if you check the parliamentary channel, you often see people nodding off, because, as the Xhosa say, fatty meat makes you sleep snugly: to them it is inyama elalisa abantu bengambathanga (meat that makes people sleep without blankets).

Vegetarians will be happy to know that sayings including vegetables are generally positive, like the Zulu one that goes Amathanga ahlanzela abangenanqolobane (Pumpkins multiply for those who do not have storage), saying figuratively that good things happen to those who do not expect them, while the Xhosa are more philosophical about the pumpkin, with Inkovu iphuma ethangeni (Pumpkin juice comes out of the pumpkin), signifying that everything happens for a reason.

Milk and melons

The Xhosas also have huge affection for amasi (sour milk), and there are at least 10 idiomatic expressions that make reference to this healthy dairy product – the most famous being Amasi abekwe elangeni (The sour milk has been put in the sun), meaning the die is cast, there is no turning back! I also like the fact that if someone is pretentious you can say they “consume the sour milk of the sheep” – udla amasi egusha. Rather than being branded as someone who chews on old women’s meat, I would prefer to hear about myself Mtsha njengamasi (She is as new as sour milk), suggesting that although I may be old, I look young. But getting into the sour milk is not always a good thing, as in the Nguni expression Iphela lingena emasini (The cockroach gets into the sour milk): this is said of a person who meddles in other people’s affairs.

As summer approaches, though, I will leave you with a breathtaking Xhosa expression that you can trot out when the sweat is pouring down your face – and this refers to the intense heat of the sun: Ilanga likhupha intlanzi emanzini (The sun is taking the fish out of the water). People will be amazed and impressed and think: Uvuthelwe phakathi njengevatala (He is ripe inside like a watermelon), which means, “Wow, this person is like a watermelon – you cannot tell what cleverness is going on inside him by just looking at his skin.”

Category: Summer 2012

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