Language is a central part of being human. Not only is it a key part of communication, but it also a key part of culture, shaping the way we think and guiding our relationship to the world. In Swaziland, most people speak English, so communicating isn’t an issue. From experience, though, I knew learning siSwati would be invaluable in breaking down bridges and being accepted in this unfamiliar world.
So in true Isabel style, I ignored everyone’s warnings and signed myself up for 20 hours of intensive one-on-one coaching in siSwati. Now that I have completed all those 20 hours, I can honestly say that siSwati has done something for me that no other language has – brought me to the verge of tears.
siSwati belongs to the Nguni group of Bantu African languages, which also includes Zulu and Xhosa. The first hurdle I had to overcome, and by far the easiest, was getting my tongue around the three clicks:
- C is like a “tsk” sound. Given that “no” is siSwat is “cha”, I had to learn this sound pretty quickly or I’d end up saying yes to everything.
- Q is made when hitting your tongue on the roof of your mouth, like the sound of horse hooves clopping. Useful to know when talking about the Liqoqo – the King’s older brother.
- X is like encouraging a horse to giddy-up, with your tongue hitting your teeth to the side of your mouth. I learnt that one when I made friends with Xholile.
Once I had mastered that, the next, more challenging, linguistic element was the noun class. With eight classes to choose from, the class affects and changes almost every single word in a sentence.
Even turning a singular into a plural isn’t a simple matter of adding the same prefix or suffix, like the ‘s’ in English. Instead, there are 12 different prefixes that could be used, depending on the noun. One mother, “Make”, becomes two mothers, “boMake”. One dog, “iNja” becomes “tiNja”, and one river, “umfula” becomes many rivers, “imifula”.
Then you have all the adjectives and possessive pronouns that relate to that noun. Forget using the same word to describe everything that’s beautiful. Oh no. If it’s a beautiful person, it’s “muhle”, but a beautiful dog is “inhle”, and beautiful day is “kuhle”. Likewise, possessing anything seems more trouble than it’s worth. My mother is “Make wami”, but my dog is “inja yami”, and my dogs, “tinja tami”.
Plurality also affects the verb. Take the verb “fundza”, which means to learn or to read (which, to me, are very different things: Ever read “Twilight”? Nothing to learn there). One person learning is “ufundza”, but two people learning “bafundzani”. Then there’s a whole range of verbal extensions that can be used to change the meaning of the verb, or add meaning to it. To teach, “Fundzisa”, but to be taught is “fundziwa”. To learn thoroughly is “fundzisisa”, but only learning a bit is “fundzafundza”, and learning easily (ha!) is “fundzeka”.
Other annoying confusions include use of the same word “-luhlata” for green and blue, meaning every time you use it, you must describe the type of green “like grass” or blue “like sky”. Poetic, yet painful. Also, the phrase “Ngiyahamba ekhaya”, which literally translates to “I am going home”, in reality equally translates to “I am leaving home”. The nuances go on, but I’ll stop before I bring you to tears too.
At the end of the day, I know that I will never be fluent in this illogical language. All I wanted was to know enough to bridge the gap, and based on the overjoyed reactions of those I meet and the countless offers of sons in marriage, I think I have managed to achieve that. So, with that, I just have one thing left to say:
Ngiyajabula guba lapha, kepha nginikhumbule nonkhe kakhulu.
* I take no responsibility for grammatical errors contained within this blog.