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The power and politics of prefixes

13 March 2017

Using the correct prefixes when referring to local languages in English is a matter of both linguistic and political necessity, says UCT linguist Dr Mantoa Motinyane-Masoko.

Five Xhosa women performing in traditional Xhosa costumes and facepaintings. Picture from the Waterfront in Cape Town. Chell Hill / Commons Wikimedia

Five Xhosa women performing in traditional AmaXhosa costumes and face paintings at the Waterfront in Cape Town. Chell Hill / Commons Wikimedia.

On 6 September 2016 a letter appeared in the Cape Times, written by a Cape Town resident, which urged speakers of English to refer to isiXhosa and isiZulu as Xhosa and Zulu. The writer argued that the use of the prefixes is unnecessary and a “misguided attempt at political correctness or an inappropriate affectation by English speakers of their burgeoning sensitivity towards other peoples’ cultures”.

Dr Mantoa Motinyane-Masoko, head of African Languages and Literatures at UCT, did not agree. In her response, which appeared in the same newspaper, she wrote: “It is rather sad that, so many years after the Constitution of South Africa intentionally added nine additional official languages, we still find people who question the use of the full names of the indigenous languages of South Africa.”
The prefixes are necessary, she argues, on the grounds of both linguistic considerations and political motivation.

Moderators of meaning 

Motinyane-Masoko explains that eliminating the prefixes shows a misunderstanding of their purpose as moderators of meaning. 
“If we remove the prefixes from nouns, such as isi–Xhosa and isi–Zulu, we are really not saying much, as can be seen here: umXhosa (person), amaXhosa (people), isiXhosa (language), ubuXhosa (culture).” 

She also points out that English speakers are already comfortable using prefixes in words such as amaboko-boko or indaba. 

“Those who call the language ‘Xhosa’ claim that when one speaks in English the prefixes are dropped. If that was the case then we would have only boko-boko and daba, which don’t really convey the full meaning,” she explains.

The politics of language

Motinyane-Masoko also believes that the need for using the correct prefixes stretches beyond grammar to encompass the politics of language. 

“Language is very political. Most people agree that language and culture are closely related. We use language to express culture. When our culture changes, our language also adapts to those changes. Language can reflect power differences between speakers; it can be used to discriminate; and it can be used to show solidarity.”

According to Motinyane-Masoko, an example of how these power relations are expressed in our society is the way that, “UmXhosa must often provide an English/Afrikaans name to their employers because the employers are not able to pronounce their [isiXhosa] name. If people are not even given the power to name themselves, are they really free?”

She argues that it is also essential that people understand the social and cultural context in which the prefixes of local indigenous languages were removed in the first place. 

“In the history of South Africa, language (ethnicity) was used as the main tool for separate development,” she says.

As an example, she explains how the former homelands were cut along linguistic boundaries. This was a divide-and-rule strategy. 

“As long as these speakers were separated, it was easier for the National Party to control them and also highlight the linguistic and cultural differences,” she explains. 

Each of the indigenous African languages spoken in these regions was developed, taught in schools, and available on radio as well as many other areas of society. English was used as a medium of instruction in all the homelands. It was therefore seen as the unifying language across all the Bantustans and the rest of South Africa. 

The 1976 student uprisings, sparked by the forced use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, are another example of how language can be a political issue. 

“During my schooling career,” says Motinyane-Masoko, “I started school in Sesotho, then English, then shifted to Afrikaans (although this was in the early 80s, the farmer did not like the fact that his school was not teaching in the medium of Afrikaans), then back to English. Now tell me that language is not political.”

Constitutionally speaking

Lastly, Motinyane-Masoko urges people to let the constitution be their guide. The South African constitution states the languages of South Africa as Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele – and isiXhosa and isiZulu. 

What advice does Motinyane-Masoko offer to people who would like to become more sensitive to the implications of language?
Learn another language
A language spoken in your region would be a good place to start: “Even if you learn the basics such as greetings and introductions, these will show the speakers of those languages that you recognise them and are trying to meet them halfway,” she says.
Use the names of your fellow South Africans
“It warms my heart to hear my colleague say ‘Nukumisa’ [instead of the correct name ‘Ncumisa’],” she says. “At least it shows that she is trying … and one day she will get it right. I still cannot say names such as Rose, Bill or Phillip like an English speaker.” Names in the indigenous languages often carry significant meanings or a history of a particular family and for this reason they are very important. She suggests making a point of asking the meaning of people’s names. 
These are some of the little steps that will show that you are sensitive to cultural and linguistic differences.

Story by Ambre Nicolson