Please mind my language

2014-09-23 13:45

Writer Frantz Fanon said: “To speak?...?means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of civilisation.”

Language represents a particular way of representing, articulating and thus being in the world. Its significance cannot be stressed enough.

Nomvula Mokonyane’s Sesotho statement being poorly translated has been another episode of the systemic obsession with fashioning into English things that cannot live there.

You learn early on that despite being in the majority, English is the lingua franca. Intelligence and competency continue to be judged, and respect apportioned, according to how well it is spoken.

Throughout my schooling in so-called white schools (which are really just schools that privileged whiteness, English and Afrikaans), I couldn’t speak one of the other five languages I speak.

This was even during breaktime, when I was among other vernacular-language speakers, which then at some point became a punishable offence.

Vernacular languages exist in special places outside of the centre. ‘Ukuphapha’ is one of the most perfect words in my lexicon. It leaps and arrives at the thing it describes with vitality and fullness.

That thing, ‘ukuphapha’, does not live in English. And an attempt to explain or translate it strips it of its essence. It becomes a lacklustre ‘overzealous’ or ‘overexcitement’.

It’s also not just about translations. The failure to spell words correctly does the same. The pervasive ‘Mzansi’ is not the same as ‘mzantsi’, which means “South Africa” by loosely referring to its position on the African continent.

The failure to articulate words correctly also takes away the meaning and significance.

‘Kulula’ (a word meaning “easy”) is not the same as ‘khulula’ (the normative pronunciation), which means “to undress” in isiXhosa. ‘Mpumalanga’ becoming

‘Ma-pumalanga’ no longer means “the place where the sun rises”.

Poet Warsan Shire speaks of once hating her name because people refused to respect and acknowledge it, therefore refusing to respect and acknowledge her.

To borrow from Shire, the breaking of names to fit tongues that refuse to form around them is not just about Mokonyane and Sesotho. It’s about whose lexicon we use to understand and exist in the world.

There is also enough privileging of hegemony at all times. This very piece is that.

It is okay that there is no English equivalent of ‘ukuphapha’. There needn’t be.

In the same way that “je ne sais quoi” is alive in French.

Those privileged enough to be accommodated in the dominant language and culture also need to learn to sit out some conversations.

The world needn’t and will not always include you.

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