The Language of Lockdown – a proverbial Tower of Babel for SA linguists

The proverbial biblical tale of the Tower of Babel doesn’t come close to conveying the somersaults expected of indigenous language practitioners called upon to translate Covid-19-speak from English into the other ten official South African languages.

The language of lockdown: Ramokone Monene, Thobela FM

Covid information is not accessible to indigenous language-speakers

“The information coming from the WHO, the National Department of Health and the Institute for Communicable Diseases all came in English; so the first call was to translate the information into indigenous languages,” said Dr Napjadi Letsoalo, a language professional at UNISA.

Given the urgency, linguists and translators were unable to follow the process of consensus-seeking that is the norm for coining new terms. “Coining doesn’t involve one person.  You have to consult. I did my best to consult. Informal feedback was that people got the message,” Xitsonga language specialist, Delwah Mathevula said.

The language of lockdown: community radio

Dr Bulwelwa Nokele, an IsiXhosa language specialist pointed out that:  “Some of the new words will be accepted others will be rejected by the communities. Those that are accepted will then become part of the IsiXhosa lexicon.”

Letsoalo said language practitioners worked informally in silos. His group turned to traditional healers, who are at the interface between communities and healthcare facilities, to come up with language that people – especially those in deep rural areas – would understand. 

Traditional healers are the language experts for Covid-19

Linguist, Pule Welch said, “If you are dealing with issues around particular technical topics – in this case, epidemiology – you need to go to the experts in the field, who in this case are traditional healers.”

New concepts needed commmunicate an unprecedented crisis

Grassroots medical practitioner and logotherapist, Dr Alphonse Kanda agreed: “ I think we don’t realise is that traditional healers are very in contact with their community, they are in tune with and informed about what is going on in the community. They have not only the language but even the way that words used, the rituals that are used – all of that transmits a particular message.  So with a condition like Covid, which is a new illness, you will need to find new concepts to communicate it to people.”

“We took those terminologies and tested them with sample groups of speakers and found out that they understood them, so that is how we came up with Covid-19 terminologies,” Letsoalo said.

Sesotho sa Lebowa newsreaders and current affairs presenters worked with the linguists to standardise Covid-19 language used on air: “Initially there was confusion around the word ‘virus’. Three different words were used on the same radio station,” Letsoalo said.

“One can define a virus by how it looks and by what illness it produces. The coronaviruses are called that because of how they look – they have tufts of interlocking proteins around their surfaces that look like a crown when observed under a microscope,” Welch said. “I used amagoda to signify these tufts. A particle floating in air or water is igciwane, and viruses are very small so I diminutise to igciwanyana lamagoda for Coronavirus.”

For IsiXhosa, a new term for CoViD-19 (umbuthalala / khovid ) was developed, according to Nokele. 

Even the word ‘pandemic’ was new

“Even the word pandemic was new”, Ramokone Monene, a translator and newsreader for Thobela FM said. “I asked a presenter of a sports show how he would use the term and he said it is a sickness that attacks a lot of people: bolwetši bja go fetša setshaba, so I used the term for about a week while my editor was away.  When he came back, I asked him if there was a simpler way to refer to the pandemic, and he said, “Just say Leuba.  That’s when I realised that we have a term in our language, although I didn’t find the word when consulting my dictionaries.”

Mathevula discovered that suitable terms existed in his language. “They were not used, but they were there.  I just had to liberate them,” he said.

Long lost language had to be liberated

Newsreaders from Thobela FM (Sesotho sa Lebowa) Munghane Lonene FM (Xitsonga) and Phalaphala FM (Tshivenḓa), who share office space in Limpopo, discussed how to tackle some of the CoViD-19 terms. “Some of the presenters said that Coronavirus can be compared to HIV while COVID19 can be compared to AIDS.  We ended up agreeing that the simplest way was just to use the terms as they are because if you end up translating terms that you yourself are not sure of yourself, it will confuse the listeners”, Monene said.

Welch noted that it is normal that there is confusion in popular nomenclature, “We tend to use the same name for the disease and the virus that produces the disease.  Greater awareness of the distinction is needed when we are technically defining things for official and scientific purposes, of course. It means we actually have to do the science in indigenous languages, as traditional healers have always done, but that the public isn’t aware of.”

“Covid 19 came with a lot of other terms that we were not used to,” Monene said, “like ‘mask’ for example.  We knew about surgical masks and masks used by miners and people that work with chemicals, but it was not a term that we normally use.  I consulted with a presenter from a current affairs show she said that it can be called Sekgepetlana sa go thiba dinko le molomo, meaning a mask that covers your mouth and your nose, but when consulting further on and listening to other presenters, they were referring to the mask as: sešira sefahlego or sešira dinko le molomo, which refers to a mask that covers the face, including the mouth and the nose.  It was much simpler to say it this way and easier for people to understand. People can lose the meaning of the story because of one simple term.” 

Covid came with language that had never been heard before

The term ‘lockdown’ took some thinking through. Several options were given in IsiXhosa: umahlalangendlu/ ummiselo wokuhlaliswa ngendlu/ ukumiswa ngxi kweentshukumo/ ukumiswa kwelizwe.

In translating the term for the 3,300,000 Xitsonga speakers (Stats SA 2019 figures),  Mathevlua said, “We had to actually create a picture in people’s minds because it was the first time we faced this kind of situation.”

Finding lanugage that would create a picture in people’s minds

“The starting point was to understand what action was being called, for Monene, said.  “Okay, so lockdown means that people should just stay home, locked in.  So we said, Kiletšo ya mosepelo meaning that you are locked in and prevented from going anywhere. 

The IsiXhosa term used for lockdown ukumeswa kwentshukumo means, ‘stop all action’, Nokele explained.

Terminology such as ‘self-isolation’ and ‘quarantine’ were also challenging. Interestingly, in the European context, the term, self-isolation is first recorded in the 1830s. It originates from the Latin insulatus ‘insulated’, from insula ’island’.  The term ‘quarantine’ comes from the Italian term, quarantina and refers to Jesus’ 40 days’ fast in the wilderness. 

 “When I thought about it, self-isolation and quarantine are really the same,” Monene said. “When you are in quarantine and even when you self-isolate, you are placed aside, away from people.  We ended up saying that self-isolation is putting yourself aside (go ipeela thoko) and for quarantine, we said, go ba lefelong la karogano, which means to be aside, away from other people, or isolated.”

UKZN linguist, Bhek’sipho Velanemntfwana Sibiya said on Facebook: “Social distancing has always been our weapon as Africans, as each and every family lived in a manner that was somewhat isolated and only gathered for a particular reason such as protection against wars, ploughing parties (lilima) and national ceremonies.  …Congested townships are a product of colonialism and apartheid. Let’s take a lesson from our own way of life.”

Community radio presenter in the Eastern Cape

Community radio stations have more freedom in how they use language although Mathevula found that Xitsonga speakers adopt the language used by the SABC radio station. “A lot of community radio stations tend to take their news from what is happening nationally.  I am not sure whether there isn’t always the language, or whether people fully understand the issues, and yes, where they are informing and disseminating information to their communities without all the facts and information to be able to do that properly,” Jayshree Pather, an independent community radio consultant and trainer, said.

Despite agreement, newsreaders insert terms based on the dialect used by the communities they come from.  “We update our own dictionaries all the time because a lot of people have different ways of saying the same words. When you hear words used by a current affairs presenter and radio presenter, you will find that they mean the same thing but they are using different words,” Monene said.

Professor Franz Kruger, head of Wits Journalism and director of the Wits Radio Academy said: “There are these dialects but like with other language groups, there is a significant degree of intelligibility between the different languages, which is what matters on radio.”

A survey of community media conducted by Kruger and colleagues from the Wits Radio Academy ( ek) divided the 67 out of 249 community radio stations surveyed into geographical, ethnic and religious, campus and entertainment. A total of 19 languages are spoken on the stations surveyed.

Covid-19 gave impetus to the evolution of local languages.  “This situation allowed us to remember that languages develop when they are being used. If they are not going to be used, they are going to die,” Letsoalo said. Nokele said Covid 19 “provided a space for languages to develop.”

Monene pointed out that newsreaders are presented with new terms daily.  “You cannot read the news without finding a new term,” Monene said. 

New words erupt when needed

Community radio presenter

“The Bubonic plague, the Tsunami, when the Web started developing there was a whole vocabulary that developed.  It is universal,” Kruger said.  “It is not unique to Covid but there are new words that erupt very suddenly and people have to scramble – within an hour sometimes – to find a term that will work.” 

Indigenous language practitioners are divided on whether or not ‘Taal’ – an eclectic mix of languages used widely by South Africans – should be embraced by indigenous languages.  “A lot of people speak five, six, even more languages quite comfortably… people can switch very quickly from one language to another,” Kruger said.

Panellists shared different perspectives in an online discussion organised by the UNISA Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages on the topic: Language in a Changing Environment: Mzansi Taal and Indigenous Languages.    Some argued strongly that without the standardisation of language, there will be chaos. 

Welch said, “If you say ‘Taal’ mustn’t penetrate, it is a protection of the status quo.  Sometimes there is a good reason for it but most of the time it is just classism and racism.” 

The final speaker, Dr FS Ferris, whose work focuses on language, race and identities said, “If you remove all these colloquialisms, all these ways of being – it is not just ways of speaking – it is the way we represent ourselves and the way we represent our worlds –  then we are taking away some of our DNA. I think by acknowledging Taal, we are also embracing our diversity as South Africans.”

A version of this article first appeared in the Daily Maverick in September 2020

More writing by Melody can be found here and here and here

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


One Response

  1. Thanks for the enlightenment, Melody. Language evolves. It is fascinating, but I have learned now about the complexities with indigenous languages. A new respect for those practitioners who struggle through it and create new words, options and uses.

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