People and things

April 3, 2013 § 6 Comments

I have a long and enduring love of language, which is one of the reasons I studied sociolinguistics for many years. So I’m something of an armchair linguist. And I noticed something odd the other day, while helping my daughter with her Zulu homework.

She was studying for a Zulu test, and had to learn the Zulu nomenclature for each of South Africa’s 11 official languages, plus the speakers for each of those languages. It’s the equivalent of learning that the Danes speak Danish, or that Belgians speak Flemish, for example.

Now, bear with me while I give you a crash course in Zulu. Like many other languages in the Bantu family of African languages, Zulu works on a series of pairs of noun classes. Broadly speaking, nouns are grouped into these class pairs and the first class in the pair indicates the singular form of the noun, and the second class in the pair indicates the plural form. Sentences take their concord from those classes, and you know which class you’re looking at by looking at the noun’s prefix.

It sounds complicated, but the best thing to do is look at some examples (and I’ve highlighted the prefixes in bold). Since I’m more familiar with Xhosa, I’ll give you examples from there: umntwana = child, whereas abantwana = child. Or incwadi = a book, or iincwadi = books. Or isithuthuthu = a motorcycle whereas izithuthuthu = motorcycles. And so on. (I could not resist using isithuthuthu – it’s one of my favourite words!)

Languages take the isi- prefix. So, in Zulu, Xhosa is called isiXhosa, English is isiNgesi and so on. All 11 of our official languages take the isi- prefix.

And then I noticed a curious thing. When it came to the speakers of those languages, there was a slight anomaly. Normally, people fall into noun classes 1 and 2. So, if you look for teachers, parents, children, students, etc, you’ll find them in classes 1 and 2. And here, I noticed, all of the speakers of South Africa’s Bantu languages – Zulu, Sotho, Tswana and Xhosa, for example, fell into class one, with their plural in class 6. So, a Sotho speaker is umSuthu, or many Sotho speakers are amaSuthu for example. It’s the same for the nine official ‘African’ languages spoken in South Africa. And then you get to English and Afrikaans speakers.

Neither of them is in class 1 – and I think that’s telling. No, English and Afrikaans speakers are relegated to class 5 – the same class as many ‘things’ are found in, like the motorcycle mentioned above, with the plural in class 6. So the noun pairs are iBhunu/amaBhunu for Afrikaans speakers and iNgisi/amaNgisi for English speakers.

Maybe I’m over-reaching, but I think there’s something in that, and it pleases me. For me, it’s telling that the speakers of those languages (and historically  both the English and the Afrikaans were South Africa’s oppressors) were put in a noun class never meant for people. They are put at the same level as things.

I think the Zulu speakers of yore were perhaps unwittingly having a little dig at we whiteys by the way they named us in their language. Language has a funny way of revealing people’s world-views, whether they’re aware of it or not.

Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it – what do you think?


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§ 6 Responses to People and things

  • Love it! Thanks Mandy, very interesting. Do you mind if I adopt izithuthuthu into my fave words too? It’s delightful 🙂


  • Louis Brandt says:

    What I find very interesting about Zulu (in my extremely limited experience) is that words for modern conveniences that don’t occur in Zulu culture are either descriptive or onomatopoeic. Like your example of the motorcycle, mimicking the putt putt sound of the engine. My favourite is a cellphone, which literally means ‘the screaming of the pocket.’


  • Interesting post, Mandy. I am Motswana and I know that among Batswana, similar rules you mention apply. A Zulu person is MoZulu; many Zulu people are MaZulu. However, I’ve heard a few people call someone LeZulu when an insult is intended. Le is intended for some things, like Legapu (watermelon).

    BTW Louis, in Setswana, modern things are usually named according to what they do. For example, a window is letlhabaphefo, meaning a hole that allows wind to flow through.

    And English people were referred to as Bajatlhapi, meaning The Fish-eaters. I think eating fish was a novelty for Batswana, and seemed to be a good identifying trait for English people.


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