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Getting to grips with our languages

| October 13, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Tessa Dowling

There’s something kind of edgy, kind of bold, about declaring you want to study a language, particularly an African language – and something equally audacious in asserting that you never will, even if it is, in fact, your own language.

This is what I often hear, as a teacher of African languages: “Hello, howzit, molo, sawuwhat- what! Listen, I’m like thinking of learning an African language… but tell me, is it like… difficult?” “No, I’m fine, ngiyaphila – by the way, I’m Zulu-speaking. But I am desperate to learn Tswana – there’s this Tswana guy I’m mad for. Will it be… difficult?” And here’s a Xhosa-speaking student planning her courses for her major: “Hayi bo! I am not going to study Xhosa. Sinzima… it’s difficult!”

Difficult? C’mon!

What’s this ‘difficult’ story, guys, magents, skwiza? OK, I sympathise, ndiyavelana nani, ke a le utlwela. So, in this column, I am going to help you get to grips with our African languages. I am going to show you how beautifully regular their structure and grammar are, and how they are changing, just as English has changed, and how we should embrace that change and see it as evidence that our African languages will survive – and, indeed, thrive.

We’ll look at some funny things too; things that might have bugged you for years but you’ve been too shy – or polite – to ask about. A friend of mine from England tells me he thought South Africa was a very liberated country when he first came here because he heard the pronoun ‘she’ so often: ‘The plumber she is coming’, ‘My father she is sick.’ The way people speak English tells you about the way their own language works, so in a later column we’ll get to grips with s/he in African languages, and tone and even rhythm – think ‘Umta- ta, um-ta-ta…’ Let the waltz begin!

Classy languages

The first thing you need to know about South Africa’s African languages is that the nouns are grouped into classes according to their prefixes. So, in Nguni languages (Xhosa, Zulu, Swati), we have the personal noun class umwith nouns like umfundi (‘student’), umpheki (‘cook/chef ’) and umfazi (‘woman’). In Sotho languages [Northern Sotho (Pedi), Tswana, Southern Sotho], the equivalent of um- is mo-, so the same English words translate as moithuti, moapehi/moapei and mosadi. The plural prefix for the um-/mo- noun class is aba- for Nguni languages and ba- for Sotho languages. Thus, for example, while we refer to the country, Botswana, the people of that country are Batswana (Ba-tswana) and one person from Botswana is a Motswana. Very easy, hey?

Noun classes determine what all the other parts of speech look and sound like. Look at the phrase ‘little children’ and see how everything relates back to the noun prefix of ‘children’: Sotho: Bana ba banyenyane [children they-little] Xhosa: Abantwana abancinci [children they-little] No wonder William Boyce, a Methodist missionary (and pioneering linguist) in the Eastern Cape in the 1800s, referred to it as the ‘euphonic concord’. As you speak, listen, sing, read and write our African languages, watch out for that euphony, that repetition of sounds, the euphonic and harmonic sounds of Africa.

Tessa Dowling is Adjunct Professor, African Languages Section, in the School of Languages and Literatures at the University of Cape Town. In this new series, she will explore the richness of our various African languages.

Category: Spring 2011

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