Hlonipha - Cultural Aspects

I was approaching my Motswana staff early one morning in Botswana as they were sitting in a circle around our camp fire. I waited for them to greet me, but they seemed to be ignoring me. Furious, I shouted at them: "Don't you people say 'Good Morning?'"

They looked embarrassed and Motsumi (Hunter in Setswana), my chief cook and bottle-washer and interpreter, came to me and gently told me: "Sir, we were not disrespectful! In our culture you show disrespect if you greet your elders or somebody who is in charge, first. We will always wait for you to greet us first!" I felt a real prat, but learned two lessons that day: 1. Always greet your staff first and 2. Don't assume that other cultures have the same norms as yours. 

Most people of European descent perceive it as disrespectful if somebody does not make eye contact. For many traditionally raised Zulus it is disrespectful towards elders and 'betters' to make direct eye contact.They also sit down without asking permission, which may be seen as disrespectful from a western perspective. In fact, they feel discomfort if a 'superior' is physically lower than they are. A Zulu may regard it as disrespectful to remain standing in the presence of a standing 'superior'.(5)

I have since learnt that showing respect to elders and authority figures is part of the custom called hlonipha. So what exactly do we mean by 'hlonipha'? If you want to be dogmatic, you can distinguish between 'isiHlonipho', (language of respect, a variety used by women of the Nguni and Southern Sotho cluster) and 'ukuHlonipha' (the act of respect) 'The difference between the two terms lies in the fact that all isiZulu first language speakers perform the social act of ukuhlonipha, whereas isiHlonipho is a sociolinguistic custom which is employed primarily by married women'.(2)
Hlonipha is particularly onerous on married women.

They have to literally invent a new language when referring to their in-laws: "In terms of their language use, daughters-in-law have to show respect towards their male in-laws and chiefs by avoiding their names and (parts of) words related to, or even just phonetically resembling, these names.

This has to do with the significance of the given names in Southern Bantu societies, where the given name (often decided upon by the paternal grandparents) often “reflects the circumstances of the child’s birth” (4). The linguistic rules of hlonipha require the wife to replace avoided names and related words with others (lexical substitution), for example, through the use of near-synonyms or loanwords from other languages."(3)

In order to illustrate the practice of hlonipha, Finlayson (6) applies the concept to a fictitious English example: Robert and Grace Green have three children – William, Joan and Margaret. William marries Mary and takes her home to his family. Here she is taught a new vocabulary by Joan, her sister-in-law, and, where necessary, advised by Grace, her mother-in-law. This is because from now on she may never use the syllables occurring in her husband’s family’s names, that is (simplistically) ‘rob’, ‘ert’, ‘green’, ‘will’, ‘may’ and ‘grace’.

Thus for a sentence ‘Grace will not eat green yoghurt’, Mary would have to say something like ‘The older daughter of Smith refuses to eat grass-coloured Yomix’. As Finlayson says, this is a simplification because ancestors’ names and names of extended family members, as well as future children’s names, will have to be avoided as well, and, in addition, there is the requirement to avoid references to sexual organs, to avoid certain foods, and to observe certain behavioural and clothing restrictions. We might also add that Mary herself will be given a new name" I have quoted this passage by Finlayson as quoted by Fandrych in full because I thought it illustrates the use of isiHlonipho very well to the western ear.

Many years ago when I taught Artificial Insemination to farm workers, hlonipha also caused a problem. In this instance the social dictates of isiHlonipho caused the students to avoid 'taboo' terms, such as words used for sexual organs.It was only after a lot of persuasion on my part that my students reluctantly used terms like penis, vagina and vulva.

Hlonipha also poses a big problem with rape cases in a court of law: "(An) analyses of post-rape police interviews in Lesotho and in the Free State in South Africa shows that rape victims use a number of strategies to avoid explicit sexual references, such as writing the terms down, euphemistic expressions, hesitations, mumbling, pauses, silence and tears. (This) suggests that the unequal access by Basotho women and men to sex discourse might be the reason why so many Basotho women’s rape cases are lost in the courts of law: "We can suggest that the hlonipha culture constrains women from engaging fully in the legal process, in comparison to the kind of freedom enjoyed by male interactants (for example, the police)". (1)

Hlonipha is still a cultural driving force in rural South Africa, but in the urban context the concept is being questioned, not only by women but by men as well: "(...) many young urban women and, to a lesser degree, urban men, have started to critically engage with patriarchal aspects or interpretations of hlonipha. It is important to mention that not only females but also some men question the male-dominated biases of the custom. Many individuals seem to “pick and choose” whatever they want to have inside their hlonipha basket.

This includes in many cases a very ‘soft’ linguistic approach, in other words, isiHlonipho in its traditionalist and deep sense is replaced with a soft variety of the linguistic register, entailing, for example, the avoidance of the use of the names of ancestors and male relatives. While the significance of traditional isiHlonipho is undoubtedly decreasing in urban areas, the appreciation of hlonipha as an important social behavioral codex persists. Importantly, however, the exact hlonipha constituents for the construction of hybrid Zulu identities are not fixed and stable but vary in their specificities from one individual to another."(7)

There are many other, more controversial aspects of hlonipha, such as the gender equality aspects, as well as some of the patriarchal sexual practices in the name of 'Holnipha.' I intend to write a follow-up article dealing with these aspects. 

Please be aware that this article was written by a white South African Afrikaner male. I tried to be as scientific in my approach as possible, but I would welcome comments from my fellow South Africans who are members of the relevant communities whose customs I have discussed here. They may also like to expand on the topic and give examples of contemporary aspects of Hlonipha in an urban environment.

1. Thetela P (2002). ‘Sex discourses and gender constructions in Southern Sotho: A case study of police interviews of rape/sexual assault victims’. Southern Afr. Linguistics and Applied Language Stud., 20: 177-190.As quoted by Ingrid Fandrych (3) 
2.Luthuli T (2007). Assessing politeness, language and gender in Hlonipha. Unpublished MA thesis. University of KwaZulu-Natal: Accessed on 28 April quoted by Ingrid Fandrych (3)
3. Fandrych I (2012) 'Between tradidition  and the requirements of modern life: Hlonipha in Souther Bantu societies, with special reference to Lesotho.' Journal of Language and Culture Vol. 3(4) pp. 67-73 October 2012.
4. Zungu P (1997). ‘Some aspects of hlonipha in Zulu society’. Language Matters, 28(1): 171-181.
5. De Kadt E. (1995). 'The cross-cultural study of directives. Zulu as a non-typical language.' South African Journal of Linguistics 27: 45-72.
6. Finlayson R. (1978) 'A preliminary survey of hlonipha among the Xhosa.' Taalfasette 24(2): 48-63.
7. Rudwick S I. (2008). 'Shifting Norms of Linguistic and Cultural Respect: Hybrid Socioliguistic Zulu Identities'. Nordic Journal of African studies 17(2): 152-174
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