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Getting to grips with our languages

| March 8, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Tessa Dowling

I always loved my Xhosa nickname Nomadzedze (Little Flea) until some young man helping me change a tyre high in the Amatola hills told me that to him it was not a good name, not good at all.

Eish, no. Spanner, please. “No, that name, it means prostitute. Whore. You don’t want such a name.” It struck me that yes, of course, fleas are quite indiscriminate, even promiscuous, in how they go about their blood-sucking business. He gave me the name Nobantu (Mother of the People), which he felt was much more appropriate for my age, my status and my, ahem, moral character.

African names much more than labels

But somehow it never stuck like Nomadzede, nor did it elicit the same amount of laughter. I knew the name was given in good faith, by a wise old Xhosa woman who used to watch me dart from household to household as I did my MA degree research – she would call out from her home at the top of the village: “Nanku uNomadzedze” (There’s the little flea). If I had been able to name her, I think I would have called her Ndiyamthanda (I love her) – and no one would have objected. You see, African names can be whole sentences!

My friend’s name actually was Nomaxabiso (Priceless), though no one called her that, because when you are a married woman you are referred to by your clan name, so she was Mamthembu. Her sons were Vuyani (Be Happy) and Vumile (Agreed) – and indeed they were happy and agreeable.

So it is with African names: they are not just labels, they carry meaning. They can tell you about the times the child was born in or the feelings the mother experienced at the birth. So a Sotho boy might be called Kotsi (Danger) because he was born after some calamitous event, or a Tswana girl Kelebogile (I am grateful) after a long period of barrenness. A Zulu child born at the traffic lights on the way to the hospital might be

umpteenth one Noludwe (List).born at the traffic lights on the way to the hospital might be named Stophi (Stop), or a Zulu man who wants to take a second wife could call his new baby Dedasedlulenathi (Stand Aside and Let Us Pass) – suggesting his older wife comply with this new arrangement. A Xhosa father tired by his succession of daughters might, in resignation, call the umpteenth one Noludwe (List).

English naming less inspired

I am one of eight children, but my parents could never express a desire to halt their fecundity, as do the Xhosa, by calling one of us Sanele (We are Enough). Nor could they show their religious appreciation for their firstborn with the name Nkosiphendule (God has Answered). And we could not take out our anger on our horrible, weird neighbour by calling our dog Hunodhakauroyi (Witchcraft Intoxicates), as the Shona people do.

We used to hear far more African names in English, some of them sweet, some of them confusing: Beauty, Welcome, Blossom, Innocent. A friend of mine once said to someone she thought had parked his bike in her space, “You’re guilty!” He responded, “No, I am not Guilty, ma’am, I’m Innocent!”

Rediscovering the beauty of naming traditions

But African language speakers are rediscovering the beauty of African naming traditions – only now the names are more positive, more spiritual, referring to God, to the ancestors or to the beloved clan member who might be physically dead but is definitely alive in the minds, memories and hearts of the living. So we have fewer negative names like Hluphuyise (Bothers His Father) and far more positive ones like Anathi (They are with Us) in Nguni languages, and in Sotho there is the popular Onalenna (S/he is with Us) and Oteng (S/he is Present).

My advice to anyone wanting to learn a new African language: just collect and translate the names – you will get whole sentences expressing emotions and events, thanks and praise. And why not take a moment to re-examine that cute little Xhosa/Zulu/Sotho nickname someone once gave you… does it possibly have a deeper meaning? Chill, Nomadzedze, chill.


1. Koopman, A. (2002) Zulu Names. University of Natal Press.

2. Suzman, S. (1994) ‘Names as Pointers: Zulu Personal
Naming’, Language in Society, 23 (2).

3. Tatira, L. (2004) ‘Beyond the Dog’s Name: A Silent
Dialogue among the Shona People’, Journal of Folklore
Research, 41 (1).
Erratum: In the Summer 2011 Getting to grips with our
languages column, the dialogue text used in the picture was
Sotho, whereas it should have been Xhosa as stated in the

Category: Autumn 2012

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