Change that occurs in language is normal and happens everyday we spend living and talking. Language change often happens when people talk, placing certain meanings on words. In time those meanings undergo shifts, big and small, intentional and unintended, which make it such that a word might eventually mean something totally different than it did before.

2019 was chosen by the United Nations to be the international year of ‘indigenous languages’. This seems to have awoken a passion amongst people both to preserve and promote their languages – highlighting their existence and that they are capable of explaining phenomena, both cutting edge and the ancient.

The history of languages in South Africa in the apartheid era was one of the oppression of the dignity of all black people and people of colour generally, including the devaluation of their languages. This led to the events of the Soweto Uprising of June 16 1976 when black students protested against the language policy which forced them to learn in Afrikaans. At this protest students were shot and killed by the police.

Contemporary use of indigenous languages

Our memory of the Soweto Uprising should encourage us to take our languages forward in every sector of society; higher education, research, creative and non-fiction writing, publishing, etc. And, indeed after 2019, the year of indigenous language, it seems as though people have been inspired to continue with the important work of using their languages in lively and exciting new ways. Below are just a few examples of this.

iNyazani – Plasma

Today there are considerable efforts to take indigenous languages forward in various scientific fields. These have mainy begun with the discovery of existing terms – and the creation of new ones – that can describe new phenomena. For example, in isiZulu, izingqayi for “films”, izinkundla zokuxhumana for “social media”, amatshelo for “novels”. Some exciting new scientific isiZulu terms include iHwanzi for “Hydrogen”, iNxelesi for “Electron”, iNyazani for “Plasma”, and uNyanta for “Gravity”.

On the 24th of March 2020 an article was published about the work done to create isiZulu names invasive alien plant species. This became important as these invasive plants, which kill much of the local flora and consume large volumes of water, are confused with indigenous plants and used as medicine. These species also attained some of the names of indigenous plants, meaning that without new names to designate them as invasive species, they would have continued to destroy local habitats.

 Local animals and insects generally do not eat invasive species, meaning that they dominate the local ecosystems they simultaneously destroy. An example of this is a tree called the Tree of Heaven which originates in Asia and excretes a poisonous substance that kills plants that surround it.

Tree of Heaven

Menzi Nxumalo, a nature conservationist, started to see how big of a problem the naming of invasive species was when he began working with people living in KwaZulu-Natal to create new names for these invasive species. The intention was that these new names should, in themselves, explain that the plants are undesirable and should be removed. One example of the words that came out of these workshops is iNdwane (water lettuce/Pistia stratiotes). It was contributed by a grandmother who shared the isiZulu expression, “Umfula udla iziNdwane”, which explains how the plant spreads to cover an entire river, making it dangerous to cross.

Phiwayinkosi Mbuyazi

One person who has contributed new words to isiZulu is author, Phiwayinkosi Mbuyazi, who created more than 480 new terms rather than use borrowed words for his isiZulu books about science. Some of these words are uMnukubalo for “Pollution”, uMzulane for “Planet”, ubuNgqonela for “Colonialism”, amongst others. Some professors have criticised the creation of new terms as a flippant exercise, but they forget that language change occurs both intentionally and unintentionally.

There have also been unscrupulous efforts to highlight and support indigenous languages. In 2015 the University of Oxford founded a platform called Oxford Living Dictionaries. This platform was one where communities centered around different languages could work together, contribute words, write their own definitions, and had forums dedicated to discussion in, and about, the language of that community. After some years these platforms were closed and the submitted data was kept to create a paid-for service called Oxford Languages.

The freedom to use our languages in any way we desire, to develop them, to enjoy them, is that which the Soweto students of 1976 fought for. To celebrate the freedom of language change is to continue the fight against oppression which says that our languages cannot fly, that they are not good enough. They are great, and have no borders or limits.

Images courtesy of:

Global Voices
California Academy of Sciences
The Meander Chronicle
Cape Town Invasives

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