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Getting to grips with our languages

By Tessa Dowling

I am entranced by the way African language speakers talk about their bodies – both to refer to their pain and to describe their beauty and movement.

Ndinentloko – I have a head

In Xhosa, for example, when some part of your body is sore or experiencing discomfort, you just say you ‘have it’, e.g. Ndinentloko – I have a head (i.e. I have a headache). Ponder this: do you ever really think about your neck unless it is sore? But when it is, you can hardly think of anything else. So saying ndinentamo (I have a neck) is quite appropriate to indicate that the pillar upon which your head perches is making your life miserable. Or let’s say you bite on a prune pip and break your tooth. You forget you have a brain, a soul (umoya in most African languages), a personality. All you have, all you can focus on, is that solitary tooth. Ndinezinyo! (I have a tooth!)

Pelo – the Sotho heart

Ah, but once your tooth is fixed and you can think straight, consider the Sotho heart, pelo, which is used to describe so many different types of personality:

pelo botlhoko sad
pelo nolo soft-hearted
pelo telele patient
pelo mpe cruel
pelo khutswane impatient

Musa ukuba nomsila! – Don’t have a tail!

Body parts (including those of animals) also come in handy when you want to describe someone in unfavourable or critical terms. Thus, in Xhosa, unethumbu elide (literally: he or she has a long intestine) means he or she eats too much; unomlomo (literally: he or she has a mouth) refers to a talkative person; and unomsila (literally: he or she has a tail) refers to someone who habitually forgets to shut the door when leaving a room.

Welcome, Dover baby!

Sometimes in African languages, we are so intoxicated by someone’s body we might compare parts of our beloved’s physique to car parts or accessories. (Ama-reverse are buttocks in township slang, while i-windscreen is the face, and ii-speakers are hips.)

There’s a lovely township poem (anonymous) that likens a woman to a coal stove – but there is something in its witty, whacky exuberance that allows us to forgive any implicit sexism.

Dudlu ntombazana! Gorgeous girl!

Stove sam samalahle! My coal stove!

Isithuthuthu sam sokujika ekoneni! My motorbike for taking curves!

Welcome, Dover baby!

You’ve heard of Zulu dancing, but what about Zulu walking? Finally, we have to pay homage to the Zulu language because it has more than a hundred words for ‘walk’ – all describing the way a particular body moves as one foot is put in front of the other. Thus, we have single words to describe walking lazily (nwabuzela), drunkenly (bhadazela), aimlessly about (bhaduza), boldly (qananaza), briskly (khabuzela), carefully (condoza), with a spring in the step (cokama), with rattles on the ankles (chekeza), with a swinging head (cikoza), through the long grass (dofoza), through the mud (bhaxazela), with flat feet (bhadaza), with the shoulders back (bhensa), in wet clothes (dacazela), in tight clothes (bhushuza), softly (cathama), with high-heeled shoes (chwabaza), and then – why not – to celebrate the beautiful body completely naked, as a child running on the beach – bensuzela!

Category: Winter 2012

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