Kwathula du ngoMasingana – Dead Quiet in January

What kept the owl quiet these past four weeks? Why were there no bits and pieces of linguistic weirdness occasionally scattering across your screen?

ngenxa yomsebenzi-nje. because of work. 

Which is a good thing. 

uMasingana, the isiZulu name for this month, relates to the verb singa, meaning ‘to look about, to peer out of a burrow, to search for something’ – it’s the month when you poke your head out of the ruins of the previous year, and scout around for things to make ends meet. 

It’s particularly apt looking back at this January, as I took my first step into leading a linguistically focused life – although it involved slightly more than just a look around!

I now have 11 private clients, and 1 corporate – all wanting to learn isiZulu, with 34 people in total. 34 new isiZulu-speakers, enjoying their first tastes of the language of Heaven.

I also did some interesting translation this past month – although I was sceptical at first, since it was a course handbook on occupational health and safety for a major retail chain, I quickly realised that there was great scope for using some of my favourite parts of ulimi lukaPhunga noMageba. 

I managed to sneak in the verb derived from my favourite ideophone (wolokohlela, from the ideophone wólokohlo, denoting a large object falling from a great height with a clatter), and discovered that, ngesiZulu, there’s an ideophone denoting mass production: ukuthi khíqi. 

I stayed up until the early hours of many mornings, accompanied by my imiphaka and the izikhova (though, luckily, no otokoloshe or imikhovu), translating and recording and stretching my brain into obscure corners of grammar and syntax.

And I started on two very important documents – a textbook for teaching isiZulu (at school level, and to adults), and an adaptation and extension of the story of uSikhulumi kaHlokohloko . 🙂

So the owl has been industrious, but in so doing he has forgotten this online space. 



Moods in Zulu

Example from lesson with Josh –

I parsed this as follows:

The root of this predicative interrogative sentence is the following:
THI, an irregular verb denoting to Say, Speak or Mean.

Reading the particles of the verb as it is expressed, the following is the combined meaning:

Translated as:
What would you have said in this instance?

It’s a thoroughly beautiful phrase, especially when one considers the fact that any -bu- sound that early in a predicative reminds the hearer of the abstract Noun Class, characterized by nouns such as ubuntu and ububi.

Another predicative interrogative from the lesson with Josh –


This presented some interesting parsing too:

You (Remote Past) – you (repetition denoting remoteness or contingency) – can – DO – {subjunctive} – resembling – what?
You could have potentially done something like what?
What would you have done in this instance?

I love this language.

In other words

In the evenings, after work, my other job begins. I go to people’s houses all over Joburg, lugging a small black bag filled with dictionaries and books of proverbs, old grammar books and tattered notes. The people I visit are monolingual, largely, or at best they speak two languages from the Indo-European family, such as English and German, or French, or Afrikaans. I go to these people’s houses and, for an hour at a time, I introduce them to the intricate complexity of my father-tongue, isiZulu.

Kusihlwa, emuva komsebenzi eCIE, uyaqala omunye umsebenzi. Ngihambela emakhaya abantu iGoli lonke, ngihudula isikhwanyana esimnyama esigcwele ichazimazwi, izincwadi zezaga, ezohlelo lolimi kanye nezincwajana ezimahlikihliki. Labantu engibahambelayo bathanda ukukhuluma isiNgisi kuphela, noma bakhuluma izilimi ezimbili zomndeni wolimi lwaseNdiya-Yurobhu, njengisiNgisi nesiJalimani, noma nesiFulenshi, noma nesiBhunu. Ngihambela emakhaya abo, esikhathini esinganga nehora elilodwa, ngibazise izinkimbinkimbi zolimi lukababa, isiZulu.

Sometimes we spend the whole hour battling with a single piece of grammar, or perfecting a phrase. Sometimes we end up discussing culture, or picking our way through the strange exceptions of English grammar. But I know that whatever we do, that hour moves them closer to their goal. They are tired of living and working with people whose languages they don’t understand, and with each hour they come closer to understanding. And each evening I leave their houses feeling like I’ve helped, at least in some small way, to bridge the divides in our society. I feel like I’ve helped a few of the millions of monolingual English speakers in our country to understand the almost twenty million speakers of an Nguni language. 

Kwesinye isikhathi sithatha ihora lonke sishikashikana nesiqephu esisodwa sohlelo lolimi, noma sigweda isisho kuze sithe wé. Kwesinye isikhathi sigcina ngokuxoxa nangamasiko, noma ngokucongobezela inqaba yohlelo lolimi lwesiNgisi. Kodwa ngiyazi ukuthi noma yini esenzayo, lelihora liyabasondeza emgomeni yabo. Bakhathele ukuhlalisana kanye nokusebenzisana nabantu abakhuluma izilimi ezingazwakali, kodwa ihora nehora bayasondela ekuqondeni kwalo lolimi. Njalo kusihlwa ngiphuma emakhaya abo ngizwa ukuthi ngibasizile, yize kancanyana nje, ukuwela amagebhe emphakathini wethu. Ngizwa ukuthi ngibasizile abambalwa bezigidi zabakhuluma isiNgisi kuphela ezweni lakithi, ukuze bazwane futhi bakhulume nabayizigidi ezingamashumi amabili besiNguni.

With this incredibly obvious fact, why do I have such a battle convincing people to learn at least one African language? The basic facts are that, despite the English language’s economic and social power, and claims that ‘everyone speaks English’, there are millions of people in this country for whom English is a second, third, or fourth language. And that means that, out of sheer courtesy and mutual respect, English speakers should make an effort to understand them. They make an immense effort to understand English – an effort which often goes unremarked and unrecognized. Try speaking a few sentences of isiZulu to a native speaker, and you will see just how difficult it is to think in another language. Or you could try reading the other half of this article. And if you don’t understand it yet, perhaps you should think about learning – if not isiZulu, then the language of those around you.

Uma kusobala kangaka, kungani ngishikashika ukubabonisa abantu ukufunda ulimi, noma olodwa nje, lwase-Afrika? Kuyiqiniso ukuthi, yize noma isiNgisi sinamandla omnotho nasemphakathini, kanye nemibono ethi ‘bonke abantu bayasikhuluma isiNgisi’, kunezigidi zabantu abakhuluma isiNgisi njengongolimi lwesibili, olwesithathu noma olwesine. Lokhu kuyinkomba yokuthi, ngokuthakazelana nangokuhloniphana, kufanele ukuthi abakhulumi besiNgisi bazame ukuzwana nabo. Bona bayazikhandla ukuzwa isiNgisi – ukuzikhandla okunganakwa ngabakhulumi baso. Zama ukukhuluma imisho embalwa yesiZulu nomkhulumi waso, uzobona ukuthi kulukhuni kangakanani ukucabanga ngolunye ulimi. Noma ungazama ukufunda lenye inxenye yalombiko. Uma ungakawuzwa kahle, mhlawumbe kufanele ucabange ngokufunda – uma kungesona isiZulu, ulimi lwabantu abhakhelene nawe.

And before you complain about the difficulty, or the effort, just put yourself in their shoes. Make the effort. Try to understand. You’ll realize that ‘giving is dishing up for oneself’.

Ngaphambi kokuthi ukhononde ngobunzima, noma ngeqhaza, zifake ezicathulweni zabo. Zikhandle. Zama ukuqondisisa. Uzobona ukuthi ‘ukuph’ ukuziphakela’.