Tag Archives: Xhosa

From Afrikaans to Zulu, South Africa’s languages have stories to tell

Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa (Wikimedia Commons)

Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa (Wikimedia Commons)

During apartheid, South Africa had two official languages, English and Afrikaans. Indigenous languages, like the people who spoke them, were considered inferior.

When apartheid ended, the Afrikaner minority that had ruled South Africa was willing to give up some of its power — but not its language.

“Language for the Afrikaner nationalists had been central to their identity, their being, their struggle,” said South African constitutional judge Albie Sachs. “They could just about imagine conceding democracy, and could just about imagine a constitution in which black and white were equal. But if Afrikaans was downgraded: boom!”

Sachs — who was imprisoned and exiled during apartheid — helped write the post-apartheid constitution, which upgraded nine indigenous languages without reducing the status of English and Afrikaans.

“In two sentences, we had solved the basic dilemma of the language question in South Africa,” said Sachs. “No language is any more important than any other language.”

Government recognition of 11 languages reflects Nelson Mandela’s vision of an inclusive rainbow nation. But it has also created tensions: English dominates in many spheres of business and culture, as it does elsewhere around the globe.

Afrikaans remains tainted by its association with apartheid, even as some of its younger speakers are trying to change that. Also, some middle class blacks prefer to speak English in the home, rather than Xhosa, Tswana or other indigenous languages.

South Africa has nearly seven million Afrikaans native speakers, placing it ahead of English, but behind Zulu and Xhosa.

More than 11 million South Africans grew up speaking Zulu, but few speak it as a second language, and fewer still speak it in business settings. As a result, the language is not evoloving as rapidly as say, English. It can also be clunky. The words for the numerals eight and nine are horribly long, for example, so Zulu speakers often just switch to the English words. And like many indigenous languages, there aren’t many Zulu words for the Internet age.

So language activist Phiwayinkosi Mbutazi has invented his own Zulu words, and hoping that his neologisms catch on. He has already dreamed up more than 500 words, such as buyafuthi (recycling), derived from the Zulu words for ‘bring back’ and ‘again.’

You can hear Phiwayinkosi Mbutazi discuss his one-man Zulu language academy in the audio of this story, along with excerpts of linguist Mark Turin’s excellent BBC documentary on the recent history of South Africa’s languages. The full version of Turin’s documentary is in this previous podcast.


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What Beatboxing Tells Us About Language Acquisition

British Beatboxer Grace Savage

British Beatboxer Grace Savage

Anyone who tries to learn a foreign language as an adult or teenager knows that certain foreign sounds are almost impossible to pronounce “naturally,” as a native speaker would. For English speakers, the rolled r’s of Spanish and the umlauted vowels of German are tricky, though they are by no means the hardest sounds to pronounce: for a real challenge, try the clicks of African click languages.

Some people, though, appear better than others at getting their facial muscles and vocal cords around sounds alien to native English speakers. A team of researchers from the University of Southern California decided to focus on one such group: beatboxers– people who mimic the sounds of percussion, bass lines, digital beeps, and song, sometimes almost concurrently. the researchers studied the movements of the larynx of a beatboxer in a series of MRI scans.

The most intriguing results from the images were that certain vocal movements were borrowed from languages that weren’t native to the beatboxer. Researchers identified sounds found in languages as diverse as Quechua (spoken in Andean regions of South America), Xhosa (South Africa), as well as indigenous languages spoken in southern Russia and North America.

“We could use the same sort of tools to describe the sounds of the world’s languages to describe the sounds that the beatbox artist was producing,” said lead researcher Shrikanth Narayanan, a professor of engineering.

It’s clear that beatboxing is a learned skill, but Narayanan says we’re a long way from understanding just how the skill is learned. Until we discover more about the mechanics of that, it may remain a mystery why some people are so much more capable than others of acquiring and accurately pronouncing foreign languages.

Compare that with the scan of a soprano singing “Ave Maria.”



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New Roles for Old Languages in South Africa

Linguist Mark Turin reports from South Africa, whose post-Apartheid constitution designates eleven languages as official. Since that constitution came into effect in 1997, English has become more popular than ever, Afrikaans has re-invented itself, while the government’s efforts to raise the status of languages like Xhosa and Zulu have succeeded– up to a point.

This is the second of a three-part series Turin did for the BBC. Part one, on the changing linguistic landscape in Nepal, is here.



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Killing Off a Metaphor With a Fresh Coat of Paint

Urban myth alert: this story may be exaggerated.

The Forth Bridge,  just outside Edinburgh, was opened in 1890. Opened but not really completed. In fact, it seemed as though it would never be completed. The paint would flake off, and just as soon as one part of the bridge was repainted, another would need a touch-up.

And so a metaphor was born: like painting the Forth Bridge, or that’s a Forth Bridge paint job.  Brits used it to describe arduous, unending tasks. Memorizing multiplication tables. Preparing your tax return. Attending a Grateful Dead concert.

But now, the endless paint job has ended. The paint is hardier these days—so much so that the bridge won’t need another coat for about 25 years. For the first time in the bridge’s history, “there will be no painters required on the bridge,” beams Colin Hardie, the construction superintendent of the paint contractor Balfour Beatty. “Job done.”

Hardie gets into murkier water with this declaration: “The old cliché is over.”

Is it? Will people stop using a metaphor just because it no longer holds up?

We don’t necessarily stop using phrases just because they’re out of date. We still put the cart before the horse even though we ride on neither. We still put in our two cents even though we rarely use pay phones anymore (and when we do it costs considerably more than two cents).

Plus, this is a strictly British expression. And Brits don’t embrace Americanisms, or at least they like to think they don’t. Otherwise, they’d happily trade the idea of a painting a bridge for playing an arcade game. The phrase like playing Whac-A-Mole would be a fine substitute for like painting the Forth Bridge. But it’s not going to happen. For one thing, Whac-A-Mole needs to be explained to most Brits, myself included.

So what might replace painting the Forth Bridge? Etymologist Mark Forsyth suggests bailing out the Euro. And there’s waiting for the Arab summer (we are currently in the fifth quarter of the Arab spring).

Also in the podcast this week:

South Africa’s newest pop sensation Zahara talks about singing in both English and her native Xhosa. Her debut album, Loliwe, is itself a metaphor for absence, well known to Xhosa speakers.

And a study by Yale economist Keith Chen claims that the language you speak may determine how much money you save. According to Chen, you’re in luck if your native tongue doesn’t have a future tense. Linguist John McWhorter told reporter Audrey Quinn that he begs to differ with this theory. And he has a theory of his own as to why so many people are attracted to the idea that thought and behaviour spring from language.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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