Teach Yourself Zulu, available from Amazon
I’ve written about one of South Africa’s eleven official languages, Afrikaans. And how my favorite words are lekker aka yummy and meaning all things great, and kak aka crap and meaning all things, well, crap.
But I haven’t said much about isiZulu, arguably much more widespread than Afrikaans, at least in terms of native speakers (in some areas of the country, Afrikaans replaces English as the common language). So when I saw this recent Facebook post by another expat with kids in a South African school, I felt like I had to share it with you:
kid “In our Zulu class, Mr. Zulu now says that we have to ask to go to the bathroom in Zulu.”
me “How do you say it?”
kid “I just never go to the bathroom during Zulu class.”
PS – really, the Zulu teacher’s name is Mr. Zulu.
Zulu, you have to understand, is a complicated language, which might explain the urge to rather hold it in when what you really want to do is go potty.
At least complicated in some ways. Like when you have to click your tongue while saying a word.
Now I can click my tongue with the best of them, but not while talking at the same time. It seems like a physical impossibility. Try it, like in the word Xhosa, where the X is the click sound. I will wait for you to sufficiently unfold your tongue so you can continue reading.
The good news is that Zulu isn’t Xhosa, which has infinitely more click sounds. Listening to a Xhosa talk is always slightly disorienting to me. Like if there are several invisible people in the room making sounds from different directions. Or as if they are accompanied by an army of tree frogs.
But back to Zulu. The other difficulty about Zulu is that there are a bunch of different noun classes, and depending on which class it’s in, the noun has a different prefix. Which changes for plural. Thus, the prefix umu becomes aba, u becomes o, i becomes ama, isi becomes izi, and so forth. So while a singular person is umuntu, having several folks milling about makes them abantu. On top of that, the noun class determines the prefixes of the verbs and adjectives in that sentence as well. So depending on who is pretty, the girl or the flower, the word pretty gets saddled with a different prefix. And then the verbs can go off in yet another direction by having various suffixes added to them depending on tense and other modifiers.
It all makes Latin sound like a walk in the park in comparison, and my head is swimming just after this brief foray into Zulu grammar.
On the bright side, there aren’t that many nouns to go around. You’ll find good coverage for everyday items like cow and chicken and water and will just have to bite the bullet and memorize them, but a good many “foreign” objects associated with the more modern or Western world are often derived from English and fairly easy to remember if you sound them out. Like December = uDisemba, bible = iBhayibheli, factory = ifektri, or car = imoto.
Then there are those that aren’t derived from English but are so wonderfully descriptive that it’s easy to remember them, like motorcycle = isithuthuthu.
Most South African kids have to take two languages in school, depending on what area they live in. In Johannesburg, it’s Zulu and Afrikaans, which is how our kids had the opportunity to add those two rather exotic languages to their repertoire. When I saw the above post, I was curious and decided to do my own mini survey to find out how you ask to go to the bathroom in Zulu. Just to see if they had learned anything in almost three years. Here is the result of my research:
Jabulani: I’d ask Mama Mncube, and she’d tell me to ask in Zulu, and I’d say I didn’t know how to say it, and she’d let me go anyway (as you can probably tell, Jabulani is my charmer; and yes, that was her name, complete with tongue click).
Impatience: I’d hold up my hand for 10 minutes while she was scribbling things in her notes and looking up every so often ignoring me, and she’d finally ask ‘what is it’ and I’d ask ‘can I go to the bathroom’ and she’d say ‘no, you just had lunch break’ and get back to her work. (As you can tell, Impatience is not my charmer).
Zax: our teacher didn’t care how we asked (Zax is my one child who managed not to retain a single word of Zulu. Or Afrikaans.)
Sunshine: doesn’t have any recollection of going to the bathroom during class (as you can tell, she is my goody two shoes and would never think of even asking that question).
I am slightly disappointed not to have gotten to the bottom of this rather important question. Especially since it has to do with toilets, a topic I’ve been rather obsessed with on this blog. The question remains: what is Zulu for going potty?
I wonder if it’s not utoleti. Or maybe iwiwi. Please do enlighten me if you know the answer!
If you’re up for more tongue clicking action, watch what’s commonly known as the Xhosa Tongue Clicking Song.