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12/07/2018 11:17 SAST | Updated 12/07/2018 11:17 SAST

'There Are amaZulu On My Stoep' – Did I Get That Right?

A professor of language technology explains why we shouldn't be tying ourselves in knots over 'correct' borrowed language prefixes...

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Jacob Zuma with Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini during one of the monarch's weddings at Ondini Sports Complex on July 26 2014, in Ulundi.
Sowetan via Getty Images
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Jacob Zuma with Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini during one of the monarch's weddings at Ondini Sports Complex on July 26 2014, in Ulundi.

With the World Cup in full swing, local football clubs like AmaZulu FC are not featuring particularly strongly in the news. But over the past few days, another amaZulu has suddenly crept into SABC bulletins. A few unedited examples from their news webpage:

  • July 4 2018: The King of AmaZulu Goodwill Zwelithini has called on his subjects to stand up and defend their land.
  • July 5 2018 (1): The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has defended comments by amaZulu King Goodwill Zwelithini on the land question.
  • July 5 2018 (2): The African National Congress (ANC) says it will seek a meeting with the King of the amaZulu Goodwill Zwelithini...
  • July 6 2018: On Wednesday the King, during an address to AmaZulu, warned that they would resist any attempt to dissolve the trust...

Before July 4 2018 they used Zulu King or the King ofthe people of KwaZulu-Natal when referring to Nkosi Goodwill Zwelethini kaBhekuzulu, for example:

  • June 10 2018: Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini has called on the people of KwaZulu-Natal to come together and pray in unity against the scourge of crime in the province. Spokesperson for the Zulu Royal House, Prince Thulani Zulu says the king has been disturbed by what he has been seeing.

Rajesh Jantilal/ AFP/Getty Images
Jacob Zuma (L) joins Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini ka Bhekuzulu (R) together with thousands of people to honour the birth of Zulu warrior and founder of the Zulu nation King Shaka at Kwadukuzu, some 90 kilometres north of Durban on September 24, 2008. Rajesh Jantilal/ AFP/Getty Images

It seems as if Zulu has become overnight a word non grata.

Somewhere, someone – perhaps a subeditor, perhaps a powerful board member? – might have had an epiphany that the Zulu nation/people should henceforth be named amaZulu in the SABC's English texts. As far as I could determine, this practice is currently restricted to English. On the news page of the SABC's Afrikaans radio station, RSG, they still refer to die Zoeloekoning (July 6 2018 @ 15:00).

Let's consider the pros and cons of this editorial practice.

On the plus side, using a word like amaZulu (for the Zulu people) or isiZulu (for the Zulu language) might, for some people, show respect for the people and their language. I have attended many a conference where academic discussions derailed because an English or Afrikaans speaker used the word Zulu instead of isiZulu. But at the same conferences, Afrikaans and English speakers were accused of cultural appropriation if they used examples from one of the South African languages, while at the same time being ridiculed by their own speakers for their ungrammatical language use.

Borrowing words from your fellow languages is a great advantage of living in South Africa.

However, despite these few potholes, it is generally considered culturally sensitive and politically correct to use isiZulu instead of Zulu language. I guess the same would apply to amaZulu instead of Zulu people.

It is universal for languages to borrow words and proper names from other languages. For example, the official Afrikaans orthography, the Afrikaanse woordelys en spelreëls (Afrikaans wordlist and spelling rules), has a whole chapter on how to spell words borrowed from other (South African) languages. Should it be oeboentoe or ubuntu, or are both correct in Afrikaans? Do we write Shaka, Chaka or Tsjaka when referring to the famous Zulu king?

Rajesh Jantilal/ AFP/ Getty Images
Jacob Zuma (L) applauds Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini (R) on May 8, 2010, after officially opening the Central Terminal building of Durban's new King Shaka International Airport and Dube Trade Port, north of Durban. Rajesh Jantilal/ AFP/ Getty Images

Borrowing words from your fellow languages is a great advantage of living in South Africa. Afrikaans and English speakers have borrowed words like impala and impi from Zulu, and in return Zulu speakers borrowed itafula from Afrikaans tafel, andimfologo from English fork; Venda speakers made vhuthada from the Sotho word bothata; Xhosa speakers created amaBhulu out of the Afrikaans boer; we all use KwaZulu-Natal, Bafana-Bafana and Amabhokobhoko.

Against this precedent, it seems quite natural to borrow amaZulu as well. And for that matter, one might ask, why not also Batswana, Vhavenda and Vatsonga?

This brings us to the difficult side of this editorial practice.

Twenty years ago, the well-known and widely respected linguist and former rector of the University of Zululand, Professor AC Nkabinde, wrote an article in the "South African Journal of African Languages" in which he made it abundantly clear that "the use of noun prefixes in the names of African languages occurring in Afrikaans or English is pedantic". To refer to the Zulu language as isiZulu in an English text is in his opinion nothing but inkhorn. From a linguistic perspective, he rightly notes that the Zulu "[n]oun prefixes indicate the singular and plural forms of nouns and generate sentence concordance. They do not serve any purpose when used in a language... such as Afrikaans or English." Hence, he argued, ilobolo becomes lobolo or lobola in English and Afrikaans; uphutu becomes poetoe in Afrikaans and putu in English, and abaMbo is presented in English as the Mbo people.

If Prof. Nkabinde were still alive, he probably would have scoffed at this new trend at the SABC.

His point is aptly illustrated by inconsistencies in the SABC news texts. Sometimes it is styled as AmaZulu, sometimes as amaZulu — which is correct? Sometimes it is the amaZulu King, sometimes King of the amaZulu, sometimes King of amaZulu. Which one should we use? Well, to be honest, if we really want to get on this slippery slope, I would ask why not rather use Goodwill Zwelethini kaBhekuzulu, iNkosi yamaZulu in English? Why bother with the British imperialistic and colonialist title King? He is much rather iNkosi yamaZulu than the King oftheamaZulu, right?

Call me a heretic because I can't pronounce Lancaster like a Briton, Barcelona like a Spaniard, Nkandla like a Zulu, or Gouda like a Dutch person would. But then please also excommunicate all those English, Spanish, Zulu and even Dutch speakers who can't pronounce my name like an Afrikaans speaker would.

And why stop there?

iNkosi yamaZulu should not convene three imbizos, but rather three izimbizo. The English press should not report on six indabasthat were held, but rather six izindaba. Because in Zulu the plural is indicated with a prefix, and not with a suffix like in English.

If the SABC wants to be fair and consistent, then I guess the Zulu-speaking radio broadcaster will have to refer to, for example, Khama III, Kgosi ya Bagammangwato ba Botswana? Would this broadcaster be happy to use the Tswana prefixes instead of the more correct Zulu wordform abeNgwato)? And if she adapts to Setswana, will it also apply to English? No more isayensi andimfologo, but henceforth only science and fork when speaking Zulu. Would that be fair?

Let's get back on track...

While it is universal for languages to borrow words from each other, it is also universal for languages to adapt (appropriate?!) such borrowings according to the (1) pronunciation; (2) alphabet and spelling; and (3) grammar of the borrowing language. We don't see Москва́ in the English press, but rather Moscow in English, Moskou in Afrikaans, and iMoskwa in Zulu; not 東京 but Tokyo, Tokio, and iTokyo in the three languages respectively; not Deutsch in these languages, but rather German, Duits and isiJalimani.

Firstly, how will the English radio broadcaster pronounce amaZulu?

While Jacob Zuma will not agree, it is widely accepted in linguistic circles that it is near impossible for a person who did not grow up in Zulu, or whose native language is not tonal like Zulu, to pronounce Zulu words like a Zulu speaker would. It always remains an approximated pronunciation, just like pronouncing the clicks in, say, Khoekhoegowab remains a near-impossible task for any non-Khoekhoegowab speaker, even for Zulu or Xhosa people who are used to clicks in their languages.

(Raise your hand now if you can pronounce our national motto, "!ke e: ǀxarra ǁke", flawlessly. Anyone? No one? Thought so...)

Call me a heretic because I can't pronounce Lancaster like a Briton, Barcelona like a Spaniard, Nkandla like a Zulu, or Gouda like a Dutch person would. But then please also excommunicate all those English, Spanish, Zulu and even Dutch speakers who can't pronounce my name like an Afrikaans speaker would. And thus, to prevent one mass pyre in a prolonged Linguistic Inquisition, all speakers of the world approximate the words and names from other languages with the speech apparatus available to them. It's rather simple, and we should all relax...

Instead of celebrating the fact that we lend to, and borrow and adapt from each other like good neighbours do, some people want to be doctrinaire about how the language of another group of people should work, and which words they may use or not. To me as a linguist, that is the worst kind of linguistic colonialism.

Secondly, how must amaZulu be spelt and styled in another language?

Let's say an Afrikaans journalist wants to borrow amaZulu. She will write it as either Amazulu or Amazoeloe, because in Afrikaans demonyms are styled with capital letters, and the [u] sound can be represented with either "u" or "oe". The same kind of adaptation happened when the Zulu people borrowed English percent as iphesenti, and Afrikaans dorp as idolobha. That is just how languages work, nothing peculiar. The question is whether Zulu people will be upset if someone writes Amazulu or Amazoeloe in Afrikaans (just like Zuma was terribly upset by the way non-Zulu speakers pronounced Nkandla)?

And thirdly, how should the loanword amaZulu fit into the grammar of English?

For the sake of brevity, accept it from me that Zulu is grammatically very different from English. For instance, Zulu has powerful grammatical prefixes lacking in English, while English has other syntactic and morphological constructions lacking in Zulu. Let's take the two words iNkosi yamaZulu: This can be translated as the King of the Zulu nation, or the King of the Zulus, or the Zulu King in English. Two different languages with different expressive and grammatical mechanisms: That is just how languages work, nothing peculiar.

But now, if I use amaZulu in English, should I also borrow all the grammatical properties of the ama- prefix? If so, then amaZulu is already plural, and I should not say *amaZulus. Hence, if I want to refer to an individual from the amaZulu, it must be an umZulu (which should then be written in English as Umzulu).

In Zulu, these same prefixes are also used to indicate possessive relations, among many other functions. So, to say the King of the amaZulu is grammatically incorrect; that is the reason why we see in some of the SABC texts King of amaZulu (without the). But even that possessive particle of is incorrect: Strictly speaking, it should only be King amaZulu. But that King still lacks its own grammatical prefix, and I'm back at my question: Why not use Goodwill Zwelethini kaBhekuzulu, iNkosi yamaZulu in English, finish en klaar?

The grammatical pitfalls and editorial implications of such a solution are far greater than the political gains of curtseying in the king's direction. Instead of celebrating the fact that we lend to, and borrow and adapt from each other like good neighbours do, some people want to be doctrinaire about how the language of another group of people should work, and which words they may use or not. To me as a linguist, that is the worst kind of linguistic colonialism.

I must side with Prof. Nkabinde on this issue: Each language has its own intricacies; let's learn and respect that. And let's show respect for each other through our deeds, not through grammar.

Gerhard van Huyssteen is a professor in language technology at North-West University.