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.

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