Getting to grips with our languages

| March 26, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Tessa Dowling

My mother, who would “avoid clichés like the plague”, still relished the occasional proverb or expression that summed up how she felt about the significance (or lack of it) of a particular situation.

I was often told that someone had been “hoisted by his own petard” or, of a particularly peripatetic friend, that “a rolling stone gathers no moss”. My favourite was taken from a Noël Coward song and would be trotted out whenever we became too mawkishly romantic: she would narrow her hooded eyes, sip her wine thoughtfully, and declare: “Once we begin to let sentiment in, happiness disappears.”

Earthy and unpretentious

I know that she would have appreciated some of my favourite African language proverbs and expressions – precisely because they are not sentimental, but are rooted in the real world of Africa, its people and its animals. African expressions and proverbs have an earthy, delightfully unpretentious quality. So, instead of the rather affected English saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” we have the Xhosa expression Inkqayi ingena ngentlontlo (The baldness of a head begins at the temples), uttered in defence of small beginnings. And Zulu speakers like to use the hands as a way of describing mutual cooperation – Isandla segez’ esinye (One hand washes the other).

Animal wisdom

Instead of the cross one has to bear in the English saying, Xhosa speakers will note profoundly: Indlovu ayisindwa ngumboko wayo (An elephant’s trunk does not weigh it down). The starring role of animals in African folk wisdom does not always reflect well on humans, however, as in the Xhosa Iqaqa aliziva kunuka (The polecat does not smell itself ), which refers to the fact that people generally are unable to recognize their own faults.

Revealing the unyawo lwemfene (Zulu and Xhosa: foot of the baboon) means you are showing your evil nature, but if you are a person ongahlalwa impukane (on whom no fly sits), you are squeaky clean! Talking of insects, Zulu speakers get really graphic when they want to emphasise the foolishness of some people: Isiphukuphuk’ esadl’ amahlul’ amakhaza (The fool who ate the clotted blood of a tick). A self-sufficient person, on the other hand, finds his or her own food, and is compared to a partridge in the Xhosa expression Akukho nkwali iphandel’ enye (No partridge scratches the ground in search of food for another).

Even herbalists (or ‘herbarlists’ as they like to spell it in Gugulethu, Cape Town) know all about the selling power of a saying – like this one, which says: Zazileqa endala zicinga ukuba lithole (They chased the old one thinking it was a calf ), which is quite a deep way of saying, “What you thought was just a little problem is actually HUGE.”

Living large

The hugeness of life is what preoccupies the Northern Sotho in these wonderful sayings: Bophelo ke mathomo. Bo thome. (Life is a beginning. Start it.) Bophelo ke lerato. Nagana ka lona. (Life is love. Think about it, i.e. about love.) Bophelo ke mpho. E amogele. (Life is a gift. Accept it.) Just in case you think we’re getting a little lofty and abstract, South Sotho speakers have an expression that just says it like it is: Ho lwana badula-mmoho (Those who stay together often quarrel). How true! But even if we quarrel, and are foolish people who eat the clotted blood of ticks, there is nothing like this, the bestknown of all African language sayings, to remind us that whatever our faults, we need each other – and I give you the expression successively in Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho, to show you how similar these languages are: Umntu ngumntu ngabantu. Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Motho ke motho ka botho. (A person is a person because of people.)

Category: Autumn 2013

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