The Beauty and Wisdom of African Languages

I wrote this as a response to a series of posts to the Afrofuturism listserve, and there was some interesting dialogue. These ideas are not really fully developed, partly because I’m not a linguist or an academic researcher, but also because this are just some intuitive thoughts I’ve had based on my experience of learning to speak Xhosa while I was in South Africa. I think it would be great if I could us this blog to get some feedback from other people who are African or have had some experience with African languages…

I’ve been meaning to write about “the wisdom and beauty” embedded in African languages, and I finally put some time aside to take a stab at it. It’s not such an easy thing to write about because a lot of my ideas are intuitive and are based more on my experience rather than research or an academic investigation. But nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about this for some time, and maybe these ideas will elicit some comments, critiques and creative riffs from others on the list. I know there are some African brothers and sisters from the continent here, and it would nice to hear your perspectives. Please, bollweevil and syntactic, jump in and add your thoughts…

In my experience, speaking in an African language involves a big shift in how you relate to words emotionally and how you relate to people through language, in comparison to speaking English. A lot of it is social and cultural, but a lot of it is based on the way words and meanings are actually constructed. In the African languages, root words have multi-layered meanings, and then one can add upon these core meanings by conjugating the root to transform a verb into a noun or a name, or subject, object, etc. The word “funda” means to read, or to study, or to learn. Mfundi, is a student, or someone who is learned, an expert, a wise person, or any of a number of these meanings depending on the context. For example, if I could say that Art McGee is a “fundi,” (“fundi” is a little slang) and I could be referring to his technical expertise as a computer whiz, or I could be referring to his wisdom as a leader in the African American community or both. I could also name my child Mfundi, and he would grow up with the associations of being a scholar, or someone who reads a lot, or someone who learns quickly or is adept in some particular area or field. A “fundi” could be a Nelson Mandela or a Dr. King or a skilled auto mechanic or Cheikh Anta Diop.

“Thula” means to be quiet, or to be silent, or to be still or to be peaceful. I could name a child Thuli, and the name would imply someone who is peaceful or a peacemaker, someone who brings calm to a situation, someone who puts people at ease, someone who harmonizes. “Lumka” means watch out, be careful, look out, watch your step, etc. Someone with the name Lumka would be someone who watches out for others, who is caring, mindful, considerate and protective. In other contexts the word “lumka” can mean “wisdom,” or to do something “with wisdom,” or “wisely,” or even “gentleness.” The word “khanya” means to shine, or to make bright, or to enlighten or to educate or shed light upon something. A person can be named Khanya, and she would have the association of being bright and intelligent, someone who has an ability to uplift people and to educate and enlighten. African languages are loaded with words that have these multi-layered meanings that take on different shades and subtleties depending on context. When you immerse yourself in these languages the meanings often crossover and intersect and you can find yourself making intentional and unexpected puns and cracking up all the time. Sometimes the things you say sound like timeless aphorisms, other times it just comes out funny. Also, because so much depends on context, there is an emphasis on rhythm, sound and tone in speaking, as well as storytelling, emotion, gestures and drama, and it feels a lot like getting together with a bunch of brothas and sistas and talkin’ stuff and signifying. You end up laughing a lot.

I think one of the main things that distinguishes African languages from European languages is the notion of being separate from God. In the Judeo-Christian tradition there is the fundamental concept of the “Fall of Man” and “original sin” and the idea that humankind is separate from God and must be redeemed. There is no such separation in African languages–the unity of God with the people, and the people being good, and life being good–all run through the most basic wordings and fundamental meanings of simple everyday greetings and conversation. “Nkulungkulu nkhona” (Zulu) and “uThixo ukhona” (Xhosa) are phrases meaning “God is good” or “God is present” or “God is here with us.” This simple saying is probably spoken a million times over every day throughout South Africa. “Khona” is again, one of those words with double meanings, a kind of pun, with “good” and “present” being one and same. People use this saying when they might be facing a problem, implying that a Higher power is present and working on the situation, or when they are explaining how God may have intervened and brought good fortune to a particular circumstance, or the saying may be used just for the joy of greeting, just for the joy of celebrating life–i.e., “God (life) is good” (for all of us).

I also feel that when one speaks an African language—at least in the context that I experienced it in South Africa—it seems that the underlying goal of communication is not to assert oneself as an individual or to dominate the conversation, but rather to reach a level of common understanding, to add to the group dialogue. There is a natural sense of unity, with a high level of group consciousness where everyone is interconnected and equal and it is almost taboo to be too domineering or individualistic. There is a high premium placed on sharing and respect for elders and care for children. In South Africa, people often refer to “Ubuntu,” which has no English translation, but might be referred to as an African traditional idea, concept and philosophy that emphasizes how all people are a part of each other, part of one human family and community. “Ubuntu” is central to African culture and life.

Following along the lines of the article you posted on Chinese students versus American students perceptions, I think it would be interesting for an enterprising psychology student to do a similar study of the electrical brain signals that are active when two people are speaking a European language, in comparison to the brain activity patterns of two people speaking an African language. My guess is that the right brain will be far more active among the African language speakers, as that is the hemisphere of the brain that is involved in seeing things as a whole, whereas the left brain is more associated with analysis and seeing things in component parts. At times I’ve wondered if we, as modern Africans, should be striving to develop thought processes that allow us to move more consciously between to the scientific, informational, discrete data processes of European languages and the emotional, intuitive, holistic right-brain communication of African languages.


Bit, those are some good questions…

Jamal pointed out that the research on these language issues go in both directions–looking at the African origins of our current language and the patterns of Ebonics as it evolves and changes. It’s clear that Ebonics is a way that we have recreated our own sense of brotherhood and sisterhood by reinventing English to fit our ancestral habits of speech and conditioning as Africans. It’s even more telling that mainstream popular culture takes its cues from Ebonics and African American culture. It kind of amazes me how white kids are always throwing around the word “bro,” with each other, trying to extend the sense of identification that we created and apply it to themselves. Somehow the analogue qualities of African language–as well as dance, communication gestures, postures, poses, etc.–are a balancing antidote to the abstract scientific materialism, and a general stiffness and rigidness that pervades modern civilization.

XM, bollweevil and Syntactik are often talking about niggaHz and how many cycles people are clockin’. I was trying to suggest that people probably can break through and find a way of “shifting gears” mentally, to a point where we are consciously re-making our own language, rather than being trapped in our instinctive reactions to the limited definitions and racist labels of our environment. We can talk about seeing an Afrofuture where our brains our are clockin’ more cycles and using more neural networks in new and different dimensions. I think something like that is happening when we look at the broader picture of how African Americans recreate mass pop culture, and I think something like that is happening in South Africa, where brothas and sistas are speaking groups of African languages and English and all of that is colliding with modern economics, technology, telecommunications, computer screens, etc. It always strikes me as odd that Soweto may have 40 percent unemployment or more, and yet the average Sowetan is speaking 4-6 or more languages. There is a lot more going on there than what appears on the surface.

There is a natural tension between the African language urge toward unity, Ubuntu, communal identity, etc., and the imperative of individual assertion for survival and livelihood in a capitalist, urban economy. Maybe there’s a way to move fluidly from group identification to individualism and back again.

Howard, I like what you are hinting at about looking at the differences and distinctions between African people and “Black” people. From what I understand, the Bantu group of languages, which includes Zulu and Swahili and the most commonly spoken languages on the continent, have the same 11 or 12 classes of verb noun conjugations. Many of the root words are the same or similar, and so it’s much easier for a Bantu language speaker to switch over and learn another Bantu language, than it is for an American to learn French. Maybe some people are researching pedagogical methods that would teach African languages starting from a mega-archetypal overview. I’m not quite sure how we can bridge these languages with Ebonics. While we are thinking of ourselves as “Black” and identifying with being African, most Africans–when they finally encounter us on the continent–tend to perceive African Americans as being far more American than African. Besides economic class issues, language is a big part of that.



Categories: Africa, An Eye on Africa

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