Road-language / uLimi lwemiGwaqo

I’ve been pondering how to phrase all this for some time now, but finding a way in is tricky. Previously, when I voiced some of these thoughts to my sister-in-law, I was met with the inevitable “don’t you think you’re just being paranoid?”

Well, maybe I am.

You see, you may not even notice any more. In South Africa, we’ve become so used to it that we don’t even think of it. I’m talking about the markings on the road. More specifically, the fact that they’re still (21 years on) bilingual in English and Afrikaans.

I’m not going to give you a history lesson about policies of European-language bilingualism in SA. You can find that elsewhere. Google it or something. What I’m talking about is the lingering presence of those policies, in everyday life. And, most specifically, the subtle way in which road-painters seem to be protesting this fact.

There’s no point in writing STOP bilingually – it’s the same in isiBhunu and isiNgisi. Here, at least, isiLungu is monolithic. But that’s not the same with the other two common road-markings – SCHOOL and SLOW. The first one’s isiBhunu counterpart, SKOOL, seems to be continued without much thought – perhaps it’s a compromise, since even isiNtu uses the Latin-derived term, as can be seen by isikole in isiZulu. So SKOOL remains.

But it is the counterpart of SLOW, STADIG, that seems to be the focus of a subtle campaign to change things. Let me explain. On Linksfield Rd, driving through Edenvale towards the centre of the suburb, there is a school on your left as you crest the hill. Leading up to it, of course, are the various measures introduced to control traffic and prevent accidents. And right outside the school there are road markings – SLOW followed a few metres later by STADAG. No, I didn’t mis-spell it. That’s what the road-painters saw fit to put there.

When I first noticed it, I did a double-take. My disbelief turned to ridicule of the road-painter, but that then changed to doubt. Surely a person has orders of what to paint on the road? If they do, then this was deliberate. It takes more effort and paint to render an A in big letters than it does to do a similar I. So someone went out of their way to deliberately mis-spell an Afrikaans word, right outside a school, in an area where there is potentially quite a high density of Afrikaans-speakers.

I’ll let that sink in as we move to the next observation. Up on the ridge, near the Observatory, there are numerous places where one is urged to be SLOW. Approximately 5, on my usual routes through the suburb, show a pattern of activity which is interesting – only the coat of paint on SLOW has been renewed, and STADIG has been left to fade, slowly, under the crush of rubber and the elements and time. This observation speaks of a different sort of deliberateness, and one which I would expect – it saves money and time, and allows the out-dated policies to fade into obscurity. But it is still deliberate. And as such it points to a decision to change. It’s less of a gesture of defiance than deliberately mis-spelling a word, but it is defiant nonetheless.

So now you can tell me whether I’m imagining things. Look at your own neighbourhoods. Observe. See what you find.


Hidden isiZulu – ukuSonta

When one language comes into contact with another, the collision or contact results in certain changes – new words are adopted from either side of the binary, usually to represent concepts that didn’t occur before the contact. In the case of isiZulu, the verb ukusonta is one of them.

Ukusonta means ‘attend a Christian religious service, usually on a Sunday’. The verb is derived from the Afrikaans Sondag, which also gives isiZulu the word for both Sunday and a church – i(li)sonto. It is also used as a word for ‘week’ alongside the equally common i(li)viki (derived from the word ‘week’ in Afrikaans). Since the amaZulu used a lunar calendar prior to the arrival of the Abelungu, the idea of ‘week’ or ‘seven-day quarter of a month’ was not something with which they concerned themselves.

However, sometimes the words that are borrowed come very close to words already existing in the language – such as ukusonta.

With no change in tone, the verb ukusonta means “twist”, as well as “misstate, distort, twist words or misrepresent”. Related words include the verbs ukusontana (twist or distort one another, get intertwined, warp, walk with a swaying movement) and ukusontiza (twist, wring), as well as the nouns insontane (a twisted or warped object), insonte (anything twisted, such as kudu horns or woollen thread), insontela (a beast with twisted horns, a mouth twisted to one side), umsonti (a yellow-wood tree), insonto (a rope of twisted calf skin worn by men around the body as an ornament, or woollen thread) and the hlonipha term u(lu)sonto (for unwele, meaning ‘hair’).

Now it’s not hard to see why the word might have been borrowed into isiZulu in this form, fully cognizant of its double meaning, given the illustrious history of missionaries and other christians in South Africa.

So if you are going to sonta today, do it in full awareness of the way that the amaZulu originally perceived the whole process.


Happy New Year to everyone! Ngithemba ukuthi ningene kahle kunyaka omusha (I hope you entered the new year well).

There is some linguistic and anthropological interest in this day, when looked at from the perspective of isiZulu – mainly because of its special place as a borrowed custom.

The isiZulu word for New Year is uNcibijane, which sounds authentic – even down to a fairly standard diminutive ending -ane or -ana, as seen in words like inkosazane and inkosana. However, it isn’t even remotely Zulu. It’s Dutch (or early Afrikaans, to be more precise), and is an approximation of Nuwe Jaar (with the w pronounced somewhat like a v and with a hard j, as opposed to the modern y pronunciation of Afrikaans).

Thus it can be deduced that the celebration of New Year was more important among the Afrikaans-speaking communities that were in contact with the amaZulu than it was among the English-speaking ones – in contrast with the isiZulu word for Christmas, uKhisimusi, which chose the English exemplar rather than the Afrikaans Kersfees.

The fact that there is not an isiZulu word for New Year is incredibly obvious when you consider that the festival marks nothing of any significance to a Southern Hemisphere culture – it marks neither a lunar nor solar event in the southern hemisphere, but is rather a fossilized remnant of northern hemisphere festivals to celebrate the darkest part of the year, and the rebirth of the sun from the depths of winter.

To a traditional Zulu, the year does not begin in January. It begins with the dead moon in July or August, just after the southern hemisphere’s Winter Solstice.

And yet the linguistic adaptation (and cultural adoption) of uNcibijane shows an interesting shift away from the traditional lunar timekeeping to the fossilized solar obsessions of the northern hemisphere.