Just to be safe, I’m stating this up front – this is not a blog about the US spying on everything we do (although the principle is almost exactly the same).

This is a blog about one of my favourite occupations as an undercover polyglot in South Africa, and about the flip-side of it: eavesdropping and gossiping.

I’ll start hysteron proteron, with gossiping. In isiZulu, the most common idea of gossiping is inextricably linked to the idea of whispering, and both share the same verb: ukuhleba. In fact, there are over 17 different verbs for different types and degrees of slandering, rumour-mongering and gossip in isiZulu (as is common in oral cultures around the world).

The reason why I choose Hleba is because of the following interaction, repeated almost every time I speak isiZulu to someone for the first time:

Person: oh! Uyasikhuluma? oh! Do you speak (isiZulu)?
Me: yebo, ngiyasikhuluma. yes, I do speak it.
Person: ngeke sikuhlebe! we may never gossip about you!
Me: ngempela, ngeke ningihlebe. truly, y’all may never gossip about me.

As I said, it’s not only once or twice that this is the pattern of interaction – I’d say it’s about 75% of the time. Hm.

In traditional Nguni culture, generally speaking, whispering and gossiping and slandering are frowned upon. In some instances, the act of whispering is equivalent to casting a spell on someone, or bewitching them.

So why is it so common for someone to think of that negative thing first when finding out that I’m fluent?

Simple answer: a combination of linguistic and social power dynamics, a relic from the age when the overseers didn’t speak your language, and indigenous languages were a form of secret protest. In other parts of the world, if minority or disenfranchised cultures didn’t already speak a different language, they developed secret forms of language as methods of self-expression, usually against the powerful majority.

And, as a member of South Africa’s once-powerful white (English or Afrikaans) minority, speaking that secret language is a potentially threatening act. I’m a trespasser in the safe zone.

I have yet to experience a truly negative reaction, though – I think I’m easy enough to spot that, once I’m tagged as a trespasser, behaviour is altered around me.

But what if I don’t speak? What if I just listen?

There are at least five different words for an eavesdropper – ingqaphunana, unqakelela, inzwebeli, isichashalala and umvakwendlu.

The only problem with all of these is the implication of having to eavesdrop in secret – which is something I almost never have to do. Not many people suspect the tall white guy will understand what they’re saying. So I am simply a listener, an umlaleli.

I have listened to many things – things filled with desire, humour and insightful comment; other things filled with jealousy, anger and brutally cutting words. Sometimes what I hear means I never return to that place, and at other times all I hear are the usual banalities of boyfriends and children and long work hours. But I hear it, unbeknownst to the speakers.

And what I have heard is often the most honest, practical expression of isiNguni – unmodified, rich in idiom and slang. It is the source of many of the discussions I have with my clients in our lessons together, going beyond the school-book isiZulu. It is the living, beautiful, fluid language I remember from my childhood.

Having listened, having eavesdropped, there is only one choice to make – should I reveal myself?

And in that instant, language and quantum mechanics combine – for if I reveal myself, I fundamentally alter the beauty of the thing I’m witnessing.

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