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South African languages

Vuvuzelas at the World Cup, picture from Wikipedia's Caldwella
Steven Black posted a really thoughtful and useful comment responding to part of the last SLA Blog Roundup by Chad Nilep that I thought deserved to be bumped from the comments section to the main part of the blog. As the Roundups are a collection of links and comments on by the bloggers on fields usually well outside of our expertises, we welcome such reactions to our work. We also would welcome anyone who would like to review current trends on work they are most interested it, be it isiZulu, the language of public and private spaces or current trends in gendered language–Just drop us a note in the response box and we will help you put together an appropriate post.
all best, Leila

Steven Black wrote:
As a scholar who specializes in linguistic anthropology and who has conducted work on isiZulu in South Africa (isiZulu rather than ‘Zulu’ is the correct term for the Zulu LANGUAGE rather than the Zulu people), I am getting awfully tired of mistranslations and misinformation about South African languages surrounding the world cup. Though the information posted here is basically correct, I feel a need to give it some more contextualization and verification rather than merely quoting BBC and wikipedia on the society for linguistic anthropology’s website!

First, as an additional example of misinformation not listed here: the South African team’s name, Bafana bafana, has been translated on international television as “the boys the boys,” but if you understand not only the lexical translation (bafana does mean ‘the boys’) but also the syntax of isiZulu, then you know that Bafana bafana is more correctly translated as “boys are boys” which can be MOST correctly glossed as “boys will be boys.” This makes a lot more sense, and is a lot more fun, than saying “the boys the boys.”

About the vuvuzela term: first, the suffix -ela is an “applicative” extension in isiZulu. The suffix “ela” means “an action… performed for, on behalf of, or in the direction of something or someone” (Mbeje 2005:229). Second, there are a large number of ideophones in isiZulu (in fact, the term was first invented as a grammatical category for the linguistic analysis of isiZulu). An ideophone is basically type of onomatopoeia. Thus the term “vuvuzela” can be understood as ‘the thing with which you make the vuvu sound for someone or something’.

The term Nguni, rather than ‘Bantu’, is now popularly used in southern Africa to describe a subset of languages that share grammatical features because the word ‘Bantu’ has pejorative connotations due to its use by the oppressive Apartheid government. This is not an entirely satisfying solution for linguists because the term ‘Bantu’ is more inclusive and refers to a large swath of languages (see work by Larry Hyman on the subject). Still in this case the term Nguni is correct referring to a subset of several southern African languages share that many grammatical and lexical features, so much so that they are (partially) mutually intelligible.

Finally, “township slang” is a rule-governed phenomenon quickly becoming a creole language or two in South Africa, one of which is often known as “tsotsitaal”–from the word tsotsi (urban slang for ‘gangster’ that crosscuts multiple Nguni languages) and taal (Afrikaans for ‘language’).
July 10, 2010, 7:15 am

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