The Linguist’s Comeuppance

Take that, American linguaphiles.

Without even leaving her home country, my husband Lala’s little niece Manqoba is already presenting a challenge to my American relatives. I can see the anxiety in family members’ eyes when we talk about Lala’s rambunctious nthukhulu.

“Man-koba? Is that it?” They say hopefully.

Manqoba’s mother and father are Nthabiseng and Mandlakayise. Her name, which means “victor”, is Zulu.

I’m a girl who was called “the Dictionary” in elementary school. All my life, people have been asking me, “is that a word?” “how do you spell it?” and “what does that word mean?” Not only am I a writer. I’m sort of an English whiz who chased my etymological obsession through five years of Latin. I never studied for school vocabulary tests. I was born with spell-check in my head. I was one smart cookie.

But when I visited my husband’s family home, not only was I surrounded by toddlers who speak three or four languages without even trying; I was reduced to learning letter sounds. Papa (Lala’s father Josiah, a Tsonga man whose name is really Matshikete) gave me a new education on “c”, “q”, and “x”.  Zulu and Tsonga are both frequently spoken at the Mabaso household, and “x”, already shifty enough when it comes to American usage (“fox”, “xylophone”, or even the phonetic pandemonium of a Philadelphia restaurant called Xochitl) has a whole other life in South African languages. In Tsonga, “x” is a soothing “sh” sound. But in Zulu, it’s a click. Actually, each of the letters I mentioned above has its own unique click sound.

Papa taught me the difference. He bounced his tongue off of the highest part of his palate, and a sound like the clop of a horse hoof on cement resounded throughout the house. That click is a Zulu “q”, as in “Manqoba”. To make a Zulu “c”, bounce the tip of our tongue off the very top of your palate, just behind your front teeth, like a “tsk tsk” sound. Try it: cela means “ask”. To make an “x” sound, bounce the side of your tongue off the inside of your teeth on one side, like the sound you’d use to encourage a horse.  Try it: ixoxo, gloriously, means “frog” (and that “i” makes an “ee” sound).

Including English, South Africa has eleven official languages. Many are related: for example, speakers of Zulu, Xhosa (practice your “x”) and Ndebele can often understand each other, because their languages have similar origin. People who speak Setswana or Sotho (“sue-too”) dialects have common ground in a second language group.

“Please please teach me how to speak Venda, people,” says our nephew Karabo on Facebook. Comments imply that there may be a girl involved. Venda belongs to a third language group, and it’s one of the few languages in Johannesburg that my husband can’t understand. My husband’s home language, Tsonga, belongs to a fourth category, which has its roots in the Shangaan people’s Xishangana, though it’s influenced by the Zulu group.

For a few mornings, I proudly greeted my in-laws with avuxeni, (practice your Tsonga “x”) meaning “morning” or, as a greeting, “good morning”. Then one day Lala pulled me aside and quietly explained that dumela would be more appropriate for his mother, whose own family language is actually of the Sotho grouping, not the Shangaan. Another appropriate Sotho greeting is okayi  (which, depending on context, means “where are you?” or “how are you doing?”), to which one responds, keteng (“I’m fine”).  When addressing more than one person, the greeting becomes lekayi – though this is also used to address a single person to whom you want to show respect, like a family elder.

Meanwhile, Lala’s Zulu brother-in-law, Mandlakayise (Mandla for short), was teaching me Zulu greetings, which vary according to whether you’re addressing one person or many: sawubona for one becomes sanbonani  for more than one – unless you want to use a different greeting.

I decided to practice when a nice little boy on his way home from school said “hello” as he passed us in the street.

“Ninjani!” I replied. “Is that right?” I whispered to Lala.

“Sort of,” he said encouragingly. “You have the right idea. But ninjani is Zulu and he’s actually Sotho. And really, ninjani  means ‘hello to all of you’.”

“How do you know he’s not Zulu?”

“His school uniform. They speak Sotho in that school.”

“So what should I have said?”

“Well, if he was Zulu it would be unjani  – that’s the casual version. If you want to be correct, though, it’d be gunjani to say hello to one person.”

“But that kid wasn’t even Zulu!”

“Anyway, he knew what you meant. Good job, babe.”


A family’s home language is determined by its patriarch, so I decided to focus on my Tsonga vocabulary, even though Tsonga is not one of the languages primarily spoken in  my in-laws’ home neighborhood of Soweto, outside Johannesburg.

Though Tsonga lacks the “click” sounds which, to many Americans, would typify an African language, many of its words are gorgeous multisyllabic journeys which mash all kinds of consonants together in the most cavalier way, like lwandlenkulu, which undulates as smoothly as the ocean it describes, or Nhlampfi, meaning “fish”. Xinghezi means “English” and xinyenyana means “bird”.

I was pleased to have mastered this, and then was baffled for an entire afternoon as Mandla and Nthabiseng’s kids repeatedly peeked out the front door and then surged back through the living room screaming “ijuba! IJUBA!!” It’s Zulu for pigeon, I learned, like the one that was roosting above the front porch.

A common Tsonga sound can baffle most English-speakers. How would you say nhlekani, meaning “afternoon”, or, as a greeting, “good afternoon”? That “hl” sound can be a demon for non-native speakers. Arch your tongue and put the tip of it against the back of your front teeth, ready to make an “L” sound. Blow gently out of your mouth, around the sides of your tongue, and let the air roll in to the “L”.

Now you can say Nelson Mandela’s real name. He is Xhosa, and Nelson is the name a white elementary school teacher once assigned him, because she couldn’t pronounce his real name: Rolihlahla. By the way, make that “r” a guttural, back-of-the-throat “h”, kind of like the sound we make when we imitate a cat’s hiss. As perhaps the best-chosen name of all time, literally translated, Rolihlahla means “one who shakes the branches of the tree”, or one who alters the established order.

My Tsonga vocabulary might please my father-in-law, but out and about in Johannesburg, I was surrounded mostly by Zulu or Sotho speakers. At stores and restaurants, I constantly chickened out, saying “thank you” instead of “ngiyabonga” or “ke ale boga” because I didn’t know which language to use for which individual – or if they belonged to a tribe whose language I hadn’t even heard of.

Even offering a drink to workers re-doing my in-laws’ ceiling proved challenging. They stared at me curiously as I tried English, Zulu, Sotho and Tsonga to ask them if they wanted water… manzimetzimati?  Finally I went to the kitchen and returned, hoisting a glass of water in my hand. I am not sure if I had the wrong languages altogether or if my pronunciation was so bad they couldn’t understand me. Maybe the prospect of a white American girl traipsing unheralded into a Soweto household to interrupt their work was overtly bizarre. Or maybe they just weren’t thirsty.

I picked up several words around the house, mostly courtesy of the kids, who demanded a lot of isinkwa (bread) and often endured “vala!” at high volumes from Papa, demanding that they close the door.

Lala and I set out on a city-wide search for African language books that catered to English-speakers. There were African-language books teaching Afrikaans (one of the official eleven, a variant of 17th-century Dutch spoken by most white South Africans) and Afrikaans books teaching English. We searched street stalls, malls, bookstores and school supply outlets for English books teaching Zulu, Sotho or Tsonga.

Even official college-supply staffers were nonplussed at best, irritated at worst.

“We don’t have that kind of book,” they said. “I never heard of anything like that.”

One kind staffer took pity on us, though she warned that she didn’t think any English-to-Zulu/Sotho books existed. She waved us behind the counter to the stacks of the school-supply center. As long as we left our backpacks at the register, we were free to comb the shelves ourselves.

We worked our way up and down the rows for a long time. I thumbed fruitlessly through volumes of African poetry and literature, and Afrikaans workbooks, searching for a title, any title, in English.

“Lala!” I cried at last. I seized a large, thin book from the elementary shelves.

It was “My Zulu Word Book”. It was full of lists of Zulu words opposite lists of English words. Jackpot. After a further search, with the renewed help of the slightly sheepish employee, we also found “Say It In Zulu” for grown-ups.

But it was the kids’ book that really caught my fancy, because of the picture on its cover. A terrified little white girl in a yellow blouse and hair-ribbon opens a box with rats, ticks, roaches, mosquitoes, fleas, spiders and bees bursting out of it. Whether this is supposed to offer some sort of commentary on what happens to white girls who want to learn Zulu is anybody’s guess.

“Can you stop that?” my husband mumbled one night from his pillow. Without realizing it, I had been staring into the dark, clicking my tongue to make the Zulu “q”, “x”, and “c”, over and over again. I’m back in the US now, returning with relief to the single language that got me a reputation as a pretty smart chick – until I met my niece Manqoba and the natural-born linguists of the Rainbow Nation.



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  1. OK, so you have it all over me with your language skills. Sometimes even one additional language can be hard. When I moved to Switzerland, they spoke in Swiss-German, specifically Bärn-Dütsch, and read/wrote in Hoch Deutsch. Life wasn’t easy initially as I was on my own…

    What I didn’t know for a while, even as I started trying to master German, was that the letters are pronounced differently. I didn’t do German in high school (we did French and Italian) so it never occurred to me that I ought to have started with the alphabet.

    I discovered my ignorance when I was getting my UK Amex card converted to become a Swiss Amex card. The lady on the phone was asking my name and “Sean” was no problem at all … until I got past the “s” and moved on to the “e” … you mean “i” she asks? No, “e”. Right, “i”. Huh says me?? You don’t know the LETTERS, she asks in frustration? No, I didn’t know they’re different I plaintively explain! After some minutes bouncing around the phonetic alphabet — surprise, surprise, they don’t use “Alpha”, “Beta”, “Charlie” and so on, we eventually figure out who I am and what to put on my new Amex card. Not that having my first name spelled correctly helped anyone pronounce it…

    OK, so my little problems are dwarfed by your efforts, but it seemed like a big deal when I was not able to shop using anything but pictures on containers and had to gamble that Milch meant Milk…

    So congratulations on your efforts!

    • As far as I know, the alphabets of the African languages I’m learning have the same alphabets as English, but as you can see, sometimes the sound of the letters is anybody’s guess, for a native English-speaker anyway. The vowels are especially challenging, and so much of words’ meaning, I am learning, relies on correct intonation of the vowels. And the consonant combinations really blew my mind at first.

      Your experiences in Switzerland sound fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

      • I am South African and grew up speaking English and Afrikaans. Your blog was great, I remember taking on a third language, Zulu, in school, it was an experience.
        In Afrikaans there really isn’t any use of the letter C 🙂

      • Thanks for visiting and thanks for your comment! Modern South Africa is an amazing country and I can’t wait to visit again.

  2. I love hearing people speak in different languages. On my college campus, I would often hear students speaking a variety of Asian languages, and I always wanted to stay and listen for a while.

    That’s a very strange picture on the “My Zulu Word Book” cover. Maybe it does represent a non-native speaker’s fear of all those unfamiliar sounds. Then again, it doesn’t exactly paint a flattering picture of the Zulu language – who would want their native language associated with rats and cockroaches?

    • I know, I thought the choice of cover art was very strange. It’s true, Americans are generally very afraid to try the African sounds that are new to them. But everyone should try it! the languages are beautiful.

  3. What an amazing experience, and what a bewildering array of languages and situations! I especially loved the schoolboy–determining the correct greeting by his school uniform–unbelievable!

    That book cover was truly strange–wonder what was going through the illustrator’s mind?

    I’m impressed at your efforts to master new phonemes, as I’ve lived in the UAE for years and still can’t pronounce certain features of Arabic properly, much less carry on a proper conversation. I know just enough Arabic to take a taxi and keep my students on their toes.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought that book cover was bizarre,.
      It’s great hearing about other folks’ linguistic experiences in other countries – your life sounds interesting! good luck with the Arabic and thanks for visiting – hope you’ll come again.

  4. Well, what can I say. Just stumbled in here by accident and think it might be the best blog I have ever read. I spent 5 years in South Africa aged 7 -12 and loved it beyond words. Went to an Afrikaans speaking boarding school, and learned some Zulu from the ‘servant girls’ as they were then known. Please forgive me if this is an inappropriate expression now, I mean no disrespect to young women who were unfailingly charming and helpful to a boy in a very strange land.
    Your tale of Nelson Mandela moved me enormously. He is, I believe, the greatest man of my lifetime – I am not young! – and if your translation of his given name is accurate then what prescience his parents showed!
    Thank you so much for this, I am in your debt.

    • Wow, thanks, I’m glad you found these topics as meaningful as I do. Mandela is a hero of mine as well – I devoured “Long Walk to Freedom” the year after I graduated college and enjoyed a huge exhibit dedicated to his life at Jo’burg’s Apartheid Museum last year. Also visited his house in Soweto and saw all his honorary degrees and some of his personal items from Robben Island. I’ll never forget it.

      I hope you’ll visit again – I have a whole category of pieces on South Africa here, and plan to write more. Always a pleasure to connect with someone else who also appreciates South Africa.

  5. Asante sana Alaina! (Kiswahili is very easy to pronounce and there are no clicks 🙂 )

    • The clicks really aren’t too hard once you’ve practiced a little…we actually use them ourselves for different vocal gestures without realizing it. You just have learn to put them into the words you pronounce. Thanks for reading!

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