Not on my terms: Language and Names

I think one of the most important things that we as Afrikaans or English speaking South Africans can do to work towards reconciliation in this country is to learn to speak an(other) African language. In KZN the obvious choice is isiZulu. We have been doing a basic conversational class through The Siyakhuluma Project on Wednesday evenings. The Siyakhuluma Project aims to bridge both the language and cultural divide amongst people living in KZN. The cultural information shared by our lecturer has really opened my eyes to many things that I have been ignorant of in the past.

Speaking English to an isiZulu speaking person, not only means that you are speaking to them on your terms of vocabulary and grammar, but in choosing to speak English we actually impose our cultural ways of thinking upon the other person without having the faintest idea that we are doing so. Language never is just mere words. It comes with culture and “being”.

One of the most striking ways this point can be demonstrated is in the names we call people by. I will share a few very very basic things I have learned that I thought may be helpful for some – even though you may know this already (and to my isiZulu speaking friends, please correct me if I’m wrong, this is my understanding of it all and I am trying my best to bridge a few divides here!)

As I understand it now, in Zulu culture calling someone by their surname is deeply respectful. Apparently the word for “name” in isiZulu is the same as just “word” (igama – you literally ask “What is the word that is yours?” when you say “Ungubani igama lakho?”) – your name is just a word added to you, but your surname (“isibongo”) is the name you feel praised by. It acknowledges you as a representative of your family (And I’m sure you can connect this with the idea of “ubuntu” which means that we are actually only truly a person through others. I find this incredibly beautiful. You can apparently even thank a person by saying their surname instead of “Thank you” – it is that praiseworthy). So, for instance, if you want to respect someone (say she is an older person in your neighbourhood) and her name is Thokazani Mhlanga, it would be hugely respectful of you to call her MaMlanga rather than Thokozani. (Apparently you usually use the name of the family a woman has been born into – her maiden name in other words)

If you want to call someone by their “word”, I urge you to insist on calling them by their “real name” and not some name they have had to take because it is “easier.” Our lecturer told us the story of how she was given a Latin name in order for her to be christened and accepted into the local Catholic school. She never even knew the meaning of that name and most people in her family could not pronounce the name! I keep on thinking what a dehumanising experience it must have been. Naming someone on our terms like that eats away at their identity and ultimately their humanity. Calling someone by names they prefer or love acknowledges them and is respectful. Amazing that something as simple as a name (or a surname) can play a role in restoring a person’s humanity.

My husband had to learn the names of his new colleagues when we first moved here 9 years ago – Prathna, Prishnee, Prasha, Praksha, to name but a few – which was about as foreign to him – an Afrikaans speaking Free State boytjie – as can be. He managed just fine, so really there is no reason why we can’t also manage Andile, Nobuhle and Sthembisile.

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