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As an indigenous language, isiZulu adds up

The Star

There are strict mathematical formula rules in isiZulu language, writes Makhosi Khoza.

Johannesburg - This year marks 40 years since the school pupil revolt against language imperialism.

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Indigenous South African languages are equally based on logic and intelligence, and are competent to be used for teaching purposes and solving mathematical problems, says the writer.

In 1976, Soweto high school pupils braved the violence regularly meted out to black people by the regime's authorities and rejected Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

Many of them were inspired by revolutionaries such as Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, celebrated African philosopher and guerrilla Amilcar Cabral, and American revolutionary and writer Frantz Fanon.

Language is a powerful cultural instrument. It's also economics and one of the tools the colonisers deployed effectively to entrench a lasting legacy in Africa.

In one of his seminal lectures, Cabral writes: “A people who free themselves from foreign domination will be free culturally only if they return to the upward paths of their own culture, which is nourished by the living reality of its environment, and which negates any kind of subjection to foreign culture.”

But four decades since the 1976 uprising, the language issue remains unresolved, and once again students are railing against the authorities.

Indigenous South African languages have yet to be integrated as a medium of instruction in schools and universities. English and Afrikaans still rule the roost and our African languages are gradually losing their significance.

The irony is that indigenous South African languages are equally based on logic and intelligence, and are competent to be used for teaching purposes and solving mathematical problems.

Over the past seven years, I have been researching isiZulu as a case study. One of the four Nguni languages, isiZulu is considered a lingua franca of South Africa. My findings, published in a book this month, show that isiZulu, like mathematics and science, is sequential, noun-cluster specific, systematic, relational, interdependent and an incredible tool to enhance problem-solving and systematic thinking abilities.

Perhaps key is that isiZulu consists of 12 noun clusters, contrary to current literature.

The book is made up of an isiZulu/English translator and textbook with more than 1.5 million characters, more than 600 000 isiZulu/English translations, synonyms, antonyms and so on.

Importantly, the translator is written in such a way that you find the isiZulu word like you speak and write it. The translator follows the new Ubuntu Zulu Alphabetical Language Order (Uzalo). This was prompted by the fact that all isiZulu nouns have prefix vowels and most isiZulu verbs have no prefix vowel and often in their original form end with the vowel “a”.

This is a contribution towards building social cohesion and patriotic bilingualism in South Africa. The work challenges centuries-long stereotypes about black Africans as uncivilised and backward as the logic and intelligence of their language suggest the contrary view.

The textbook compares isiZulu and English languages logic. The way isiZulu language words are spelt could be done mathematically because its morphological structure of words is consistent and allows this possibility. For example, isithuthuthu / motorbike could be spelt mathematically as following: (i)+(si)+(thu)3 or (i)+(si)+(thu)2+ (thu) or (i)+(si)+(thu)+(thu)+(thu). Its syntax is mathematically inclined.

There are strict mathematical formula rules in isiZulu language. For example, there is no generic word for the conjunction “and”, but “and” is mathematically formulated through a process called vowel coalescence.

IsiZulu language words must never have vowels following each other consecutively in one word, yet in English this is allowed (eg greet / bingelela; read / funda; quick / shesha.

The textbook also contains rules and protocols of isiZulu language. For instance, there are no isiZulu words formed with consonants or non-vowel alphabets only, yet there are many words like that in English (eg try / zama; pry/ buza; cry / khala; dry / oma; fry / thosa). IsiZulu language is noun-cluster or class specific, yet English is not.

In isiZulu, nouns belong to any of the 12 Uzalo noun clusters, with each having noun-cluster specific pronouns, possessives, noun concords for verbs and adjectives. English uses general singularity, plurality and mass noun rules.

There are nine isiZulu (noun cluster) specific possessives equivalent to “my” in English (eg “My car” / “imoto yami”).

When the noun cluster changes so does the isiZulu possessive, eg umama wami / my mother, iqanda lami / my egg or izingane zami / my children. Whereas English is gender and human specific in its pronouns, isiZulu language has no words like “she”, “he”, “it”.

There is a systematic and interdependent relationship among isiZulu noun clusters. In English, language pronouns are linked to the singularity and plural status of the noun.

My study into isiZulu language found that the stem-based approach which often omits vowels was central to complicating the learning process of these languages, eg ikhanda / head, ukhula / weed, ikhala / nose.

The latter examples demonstrate how critical vowels are in most black African languages.

For the past 21 years since we became a democracy, racial stereotypes and divisions persist in the new society.

The South African language landscape remains untransformed with colonial languages or colonial-inspired languages, such as English and Afrikaans, still dominating.

The 80 percent black African language speakers remain largely trapped in the second economy marked by high poverty levels, unemployment, destitution and despair.

I believe this work will help to transform our language landscape as it is practical and consistent with the demands of the 21st century digital economy.

* Dr Makhosi Busisiwe Khoza is chairwoman of the Public Protector Committee and an MP serving on the Standing Committee on Finance. She is also former chairwoman of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and Finance (Scopa) in KwaZulu-Natal and has more than 20 years of experience at public and private sector institutions.

Khoza is studying towards a Master's degree in Finance at the University of London.

She created the language order called Uzalo - Ubuntu Zulu Alphabetical Logic Order - which drives the construction of meaningful sentences

The Star

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