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Getting to grips with our languages

| October 29, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Tessa Dowling

I once signed off an e-mail “Sala kakuhle” (“Stay well” in Xhosa), and the next day received a reply in which I was addressed as “Dear Ms Kakuhle”. I was interested that my correspondent had assumed that the only Xhosa in my e-mail must be my name, and not an actual phrase in an African language: I thought of responding “Dear Best Wishes” just for fun.

But it made me think about how little we know of each other’s languages and how much it would help if our advertisers and big businesses just subscribed to multilingualism as a matter of course. I like it when I fly Kulula (which is Xhosa for “it is easy” – which should not be confused with Khulula, which means “take off your clothes”), and I hear the Zulu farewell before we disembark.

Even nicer would be to hear the same phrase translated into Tswana (Tsamaya sentle) andNorthern Sotho (Pedi) (Sepela gabotse) as well as into Tsonga, Venda and Swati. And tucked into our seats, along with the safety procedures, we could have those phrases typed out phonetically. I remember being in an Irish aircraft in which the upholstery pattern, if you looked at it closely, was all Gaelic. It made the plane seem somehow more exotic, more Irish. Don’t we in South Africa want to look and sound more, well, African?

Advertisers using African languages
Some companies really try. I give 10/10 to Nando’s for its wonderful Hlonipha ulwimi lwakho (“Respect your tongue”) advert and at least 6/10 to Nedbank for its rather pedestrian but nevertheless multilingual Ke yona (“It is the one”) campaign. And if you haven’t worked out what mahala means then you can’t blame MTN, although if you are confused by tata machance that’s OK, so am I – “Father, chances!” Really? Couldn’t the Lotto people get an editor to get the spelling right to thatha (“take”)?

If you take notice of multilingual signs and advertisements, you should be able to sail through this quiz (answers at the end):

1. Siyaya means a) we are a minibus taxi; b) we are dangerous; c) we go

2. Kuyatshisa means a) it is hot; b) it is cold; c) you are hot

3. Batho pele means a) people only; b) people first; c) people last

4. Siyazama means a) we are trying; b) we have given up; c) we yawn

5. Ke rona means a) we are one; b) it is us; c) it is them

6. Simunye means a) we are one; b) we have hit him; c) we suck

7. Kotsi means a) cots; b) dogs; c) danger

8. Lumka means a) be careful/beware; b) go away; c) knowledge

9. Masakhane means a) let us pray; b) let us build together; c) let us understand each other

10. Metsi means a) me amazing; b) water; c) carpets.

Multilingual media mad!

If this has whet your appetite, go to and check out some wonderful television advertisements using African languages. Another fantastic resource we have in South Africa is nine African language radio stations, and you can listen to them all live via

So listen to them and go multilingual media mad!

Here they are – their beautiful names translated for you:

• Sikwekwezi (Star) FM – Ndebele

• Lesedi (Light) FM- Sotho

• Ligwalagwala (Pride of the Nation) FM – Swati

• Motsweding (Fountain) FM – Tswana

• Munghana Lonene (True friend) FM – Tsonga

• Phalaphala (Music horn) FM – Venda

• Thobela (Hello) FM – Pedi

• Ukhozi (Eagle) FM – Zulu

• Umhlobo weNene (True Friend) – Xhosa

Answers to quiz:

1. Siyaya means c) we go

2. Kuyatshisa means a) it is hot

3. Batho pele means b) people first

4. Siyazama means a) we are trying

5. Ke rona means b) it is us

6. Simunye means a) we are one

7. Kotsi means c) danger

8. Lumka means a) be careful

9. Masakhane means b) let us build together

10. Metsi means b) water.

Tessa Dowling is senior lecturer, African languages section, School of Languages and Literatures at the University of Cape Town. In this series, she explores the richness of various African languages.

Category: Summer 2013

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