IS ZULU A DYING LANGUAGE?
ICAME out from England to Edendale Hospital over 45 years ago. At Edendale in the late sixties and early seventies, almost none of the patients spoke or understood English.
There was a firm hierarchical structure to Zulu society and children tended not to speak unless requested and often remained motionless by the side of their parent, whose authority was paramount.
No one spoke English partly because black children had been and were often denied basic education and therefore access to English.
For the past two decades, I have noticed that if I address a child in Zulu in my rooms they usually hesitate before replying.
This may be because of my poor Zulu but I suspect that it is because their everyday life is surrounded by English.
I then speak in English and immediately we are into a conversation. My practice is in Pietermaritzburg so this may be a phenomenon of the cities and educated middleclass Zulu families.
Changes have been fewer in the rural areas where modern influences are less, although modern media have deep tentacles via television and smartphones.
Last week, I consulted with a fiveyearold Zulu boy with a sore throat. I wanted to examine his throat and I said: “vula umlomo”, which means “open your mouth”, but he did not understand me so I said: “khamisa”, which means the same thing, “open your mouth”.
His Zulu mother then said: “He does not understand Zulu, he is going to learn it when he goes to school next year.”
I am sure this is an exceptional case, but I have been treating Zulu patients now for over two generations and there has been a transition in both language use and culture. This is both understandable and natural.
I also listen to Zulu spoken in the street and now find that many words that we take for original Zulu words are in fact adaptations of English or Afrikaans words.
Many more English words are being inserted or absorbed daily into everyday Zulu conversation (called loan words). Purists and traditionalists may roll their eyes at this change but in fact it enriches the Zulu language and means it is dynamic and adaptable.
In 1883, a Reverend A.T. Bryant came to Natal from England and spent a lifetime in Natal and became fluent in Zulu. He recorded an uneducated (in the colonial sense) Zulu girl of about 18 years old as having a Zulu vocabulary of over 18 000 words.
I am not sure how he came to this number and it may be a bit of an exaggeration. Nevertheless, whatever the number, it was a large vocabulary considering it is estimated that one needs a vocabulary of only 800 words to “get by” in a language. The Zulu vocabulary was well known to be so large because of the
“Last week, I consulted with a fiveyearold Zulu boy with a sore throat. I wanted to examine his throat and I said: ‘vula umlomo’ … but he did not understand me … His Zulu mother then said: ‘He does not understand Zulu, he is going to learn it when he goes to school next year’.”
different names of cattle, birds, mammals, plants, trees and insects and their different colours, topical configurations and characteristics.
For instance, cattle were described by horn shape and colour and patterns on the hide, whereas grasses were described by types, colours and seasons, as were the seasons themselves.
In fact, the Zulu lexicon was not necessarily large because of the names of objects but it is also packed with an incredible variety of nuances to many words (which are not found in English) and this therefore expanded the language. This is similar to Eskimos having 20 or so different words for snow and ice.
It is said that when a language goes under 100 000 speakers it is almost unsaveable and you would think that Zulu, with up to eight million people speaking it, is safe.
Nevertheless, the pressure on it, especially by English, is almost overwhelming. The Zulu now spoken “on the street” is greatly different to that of 50 years ago.
There has been a loss, by the younger generation, of many of the old Zulu “A” words or respect (hlonipha) words.
This does not mean that Zulu is dying but it is, in fact, a living, adapting language because in place of the older vocabulary it is incorporating words from English and modern technology to make it more practical and useable. It has become both resilient and vibrant.
English itself has sucked in, like a powerful vacuum cleaner, an enormous number of loan words. If you speak English you know parts of at least 100 different languages.
The sign of irrevocable demise of a language is when it is not spoken in the home, which obviously is the case with the patient with the sore throat, although I am sure this is still an isolated case.
Nevertheless, the currently proposed alternative, which is the didactic teaching of a language in schools and universities, will unfortunately be immensely expensive and mostly ineffective. It is not nearly as effective as speaking it at home up to the age of five or six years or more.
We do not know yet what the smartphoneearplugsscreen culture, which brings instantaneous games and programmes in English into the ears of the young, will do to our African languages.
At present, worldwide, one language dies every 14 days. The three main remaining languages in two generations’ time will be English, Mandarin and Spanish.
So goodbye, zàijiàn, adios and maybe, hambani kahle.