I’ve written many times here about how confusing the siSwati language can be. This post isn’t entirely about that. (I should note that my students frequently remind me that English is extremely difficult, and I agree.) One example of siSwati’s confusion is any number of ways to refer to males and females. Umfana (pronounced oom-fa-nah) and lijaha (pronounced lee-jah-ha) both refer to an individual boy. Bhuti wami (pronounced boo-tee wah-me) and mnaketfu (pronounced oom-nah-gate-foo) both mean “my brother”. Make (pronounced mah-gay) means “mother”, but it’s also used at times to mean “woman”. Umfati (pronounced oom-fah-tee) means “wife”, but is also used to mean “woman” at times. Dzadzewetfu (pronounced zah-zay-wait-foo) and sisi wami (pronounced see-see wah-me) both mean “my sister”.
On my homestead, my host family consists of my host mother and sister. Others may come back at certain times of the year. One of the people who comes back often is my host brother, who lives and works in South Africa. He speaks many languages including Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. Sometimes, I understand the Zulu and very small pieces of Sesotho. When my brother speaks to our little sister, I try to follow the conversation. Luckily, most times it’s siSwati or Zulu. I noticed that whenever he addressed her, he always started “Indlovukazi…”. That’s not her given name (which no one uses) or her nickname (which everyone, including our make, uses). I kept hearing it.
Indlovukazi, ufunani kudla (what do you want to eat)?
Indlovukazi, ufundze njani (how was school)?
One day, I decided to ask him what Indlovukazi meant. He chuckled, and explained that Indlovukazi (pronounced en-jlo-voo-gah-zee) means “queen” in Zulu. (In siSwati, it’s Indlovukati). He went on to explain that he wants her to grow up knowing that she’s a queen and demand to be treated accordingly. He explained that it’s his responsibility as an older brother to demonstrate how the world should regard her. It’s true. Our little sister might have a few names and be called many things in her lifetime. I can only hope that she remembers she is Indlovukazi.
Be kind to yourself.
P.S. – I would like to publicly thank my students who make sure I rise to the challenge of learning and speaking siSwati.
A few weeks ago, I was leaving school to go home. As I pass the gate and say bye to the students, I hear “c’ombole” as one of the students points to my bike. The confused look on my face lets them know that I don’t understand. “Cela boleke“, they clarify. I’m understanding a little better now.
One of the students explains c’ombole is the shortened version of cela boleke (pronounced click c-eh-la bo-lay-gay) meaning “please borrow me…/may I borrow…”. In this instance, the student was asking to borrow my bike. The student who explained the shortened siSwati went on to entertain my lamenting about how siSwati changes whenever I feel like I have a handle on it. She explained the concept of rolling siSwati by comparing it to English contractions and various stylistic preferences (that are present when speaking any language).
In English, “How are you doing?” becomes “How you?”; “cannot” becomes “can’t”; and “Where are you?” becomes “Where you at?” In siSwati, “uyakuphi” (pronounced oo-ya-goo-pee) becomes “uyaku” (pronounced oo-ya-goo) or “uya” (pronounced oo-yah). No meaning is lost, and the listener understands you want to know where s/he is going. This is not to be confused with “ukuphi…” (pronounced oo-goo-pee) meaning “Where is (a person)?” Sometimes, this gets rolled into “uku…” (pronounced oo-goo) or “uphi…” (pronounced oo-pee). Take for example the phrase, “ufuna ini ku wati” (pronounced oo-foo-nah ee-knee goo wah-tee). In everyday siSwati, this phrase becomes “ufunani kwati” (pronounced oo-foo-nah-knee gwah-tee). Both phrases are asking what you want to know.
With these realizations, I decided that I would focus on speaking and listening rather than reading and writing. One of the things that has helped me with this focus is a mobile voice recording app. When I hear a word or phrase I don’t understand, I record myself enunciating the word or phrase several times in siSwati with its English meaning. From time to time, I go back and listen to the recordings to refresh my memory. In that vain, I’d suspect that I’m around the fluency of an average toddler. Maybe a slightly below average toddler. Like toddlers, my subjects don’t always agree with my verbs. Sometimes, I mispronounce things. It’s possible that I might need something explained repeatedly. But eventually, we all understand. My conversations with toddlers and preschoolers are awesome, as everyone understands what’s being said. Sometimes, I can manage a conversation with my gogo, or grandmother.
Be kind to yourself.