African Languages Must Be Restored To Their Pre-Colonial Glory – OpEd


By Motsoko Pheko*

Our ancestors were agriculturists and pastoral farmers. If they had followed the European calendar system whose year begins in January, they would not have survived and we might not be here today. But they were very wise. They knew how nature works. They knew what time rain comes.

They knew what time some parts of this country experience frost which destroys harvest that is not ready at the right time. Their year calendar began in August (Phato) not in January (Pherekhong). This year had four seasons, namely Selemo –Spring, Hlabula – Summer – Hoetla – Autumn, and Winter – Mariha.

Our ancestors dug gold, copper and other minerals. They were iron experts long before Europe. They had never gone to school to study geology, but even their ordinary herdsboys and shepherds could identify an iron stone (morallana). These ancestors had a furnace technology through which they melted this iron stone (morallana) and shaped it into tools of agriculture, hoes, axes, spears etc. They knew also how to preserve food for a long time and for bad times of harvest. They dried fruits (mangangajane), corn, vegetables by exposing them to the sun. They preserved meat in the same way and made dihwapa. Biltong is a dihwapa product that was copied from Africans. The Basotho had also disiu to preserve their harvest.

These people knew many herbs which had medicinal value. They healed many sicknesses. Some also had the scientific knowledge of embalming important people when they died especially members of the royal families so that their bodies did not decay.

Africans are very rich epistemologically. We are part of them. Some were clairvoyants dealing with matters of spirituality. These are matters that are supernatural. This was at a time when colonialists ridiculed them as “superstitious.” Today, I see that many of them speak about “supernatural” as if it is a new thing. They no longer refer to spiritual matters as “superstition.”

As a people, we must preserve our culture, especially our languages. These languages define who we are. Our humanness – Botho/Ubuntu – is our philosophical outlook and moral guide. It is our Africentric view of the world as against the Eurocentric view of the world. A people without knowledge of their own language are like a person who travels on a borrowed bicycle. Language is a fundamental heritage of a people. We received this precious gift from our forefathers and grandmothers. We have to pass it on untainted to coming generations.

It is appreciated that English the colonial language has become part of our life. It is important for commercial and international communication. It is also important for our heterogeneous nation. Many Nguni-speaking Africans cannot speak Sepedi, Sesotho and Setswana. Likewise many Sotho-speaking people cannot speak Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele and Swati. It becomes even more difficult for our Venda and Tsonga brothers and sisters. But it is national suicide for us Africans to neglect and under-develop our African languages.

A people who have no language of their own will be devoured. African languages such as Setswana, Sepedi and Sesotho (sa Mohoeshoe) have a lot of philosophy (Bohlale) as reflected in their proverbs (maele).They also have enigmas (lilotho). They have concepts (kutlwisiso or menahano) which are unique and not found in the English language.

1. Here are a few Sesotho proverbs and their approximate meaning in English to illustrate this point:

i). Phuthi e tsoha ka meso e anyese (Punctuality is good practice).

ii). Pela e ne e hloke mohatla ka ho romeletsa (Don’t depend on others to do things for you.

iii). Mphemphe e ea lapisa. Motho o khonoa ka tsa ntlo ea hae. (Dependence is the mother of hunger and humiliation)

iv). Ha lefete khomo le je motho. (Everything must be done to save life)

v). U se ke oa khahloa ke none e feta e hlotsa (Do not get carried away by foreign things)

vi). Marabe o jeoa ke bana. (Parents must sacrifice everything for their children)

vii). Poho e ea ipeha (You are the architect of your destiny)

2. Lilotho Ka Puo Ea Sesotho – enigmas in Sesotho Language. They are meant to train young people to observe and to think.

Here are a few examples:

i). Ke mang monna ya jarang libetsa tsa hae bosiu le mots’eare? (Who is the warrior who carries his weapons day and night?) (noko – porcupine)

ii). Ke eng ntho e mathang Bosiu le mots’eare? (What runs day and night?) ( Noka, River)

iii). Ke mang mohale ya jang lifate? (Who is the warrior who eats trees?) (axe, selepe)

iv). Ke eng ntho e se nang mapheo, empa e nang le lebelo le thijoang ke noka le mangope feela? (What thing is it that has no wings, but runs so fast that only a river or ditch can stop it?) (hlaha –grass fire).

v). Ke mang moholo ea lutseng fats’e bannyane ba  hobela? (Who is the elder sitting down while youngsters dance) (Tree) makala a  sefate branches of a tree)

vi). Ke bo mang Bahlankana ba  basoeu ba  lekanang ba lulang ka  lehaheng? (who are the young men or women who are white and equal in height and live in the cave?) (meno , teeth)

3. Bastardisation of African languages                                   

About 10 years ago I was annoyed by an English man. He had written that most Africans spoke English to the extent that within the next twenty years there would be hardly any Africans who can speak their languages correctly. And that some Europeans would come to teach African languages in schools and universities here because there will be no Africans to teach these languages.

But today I believe he was not very wrong. Many educated Africans are assassinators of African languages. They can hardly speak an African language without mixing it with English. Here are some examples:

Re tshwanela hore re “participate” linthong tsena. Re ya “organiser.” “Re na le “support” e ngata. Ha ke “exaggerate.”  Botsa “anyone.” Ke sa nka “walk.” Ke revisela “di-examination.” Ke batla ho pasa ka “distinction.” Ke “determine” ho ya “univesiting next year.”

This is not the Sesotho that can be described even as Sesotho C. This is   disgraceful “Fanakalo” mess. It manifests a huge dangerous colonial mentality that is prevailing in the country among our people.

Even radio and television announcers and the people they interview are part of this guillotining of African languages. I wonder how elderly people even youngsters understand this assassinated Sepedi, Setswana and Sesotho, particularly in the rural areas, where there is still a semblance of speaking these African languages with respect and eloquence.
4. African languages help decimate false “Empty Land” theory

By custom of Setswana, Sepedi and Sesotho we reared cattle. The cattle had to have the owner’s mark or brand. A cow that has not got your mark is not yours. You cannot claim it in a court of law against the thief or thieves who have stolen it from you. It will be difficult to win a court case against a thief who has already got his mark on it. The thief will win the court case against you.

Equally when you buy a book and you do not write your name on it, you will have difficulty proving in court that the book is yours. But with your name in the book you win hands down.

It is important to know and use the names of places of this country Azania (South Africa) in our African languages. African names in African languages help us to decimate the colonial false theory of “Empty Land” when the colonialists arrived here and took the land from Africans through the barrel of the gun.

Here are examples of Colonial names and indigenous African names:

Pietersburg: Polokwane

Pretoria: Tshwane

Philipolis: Podingtserolo

Zastron: Matlakeng

Pietspruit: Noka Ya Tlou

Klersdorp: Matlakeng

Bloemhof : Teledung

Smithfield : Mofulatshepe

Vryburg: Huhudi

Zeerust :Bohurutse

Caledon  : Mohokare

Warden :Moeding

Aliwal North :Mmaletswai

Bothaville : Khotsong

To know and use African languages for the names of our country including its cities is very important for decolonisation of African minds. There are no towns in Europe bearing African names. Those people are very careful. They know that anything that does not bear your name is difficult to claim. In Europe there are not even streets called after our African Kings or Leaders of the African Liberation struggle against colonialism.

But in this part of Africa our country is full of the marks or brands of Britain and Holland. Some of these names we cannot even pronounce properly. Above all the name of our country bears its colonial name. Our mark Azania has been ignored. No wonder the land is not equitably distributed according population numbers and Africans are sinking deeper and deeper in poverty and cannot afford education for their children – the future of this country.

5. Incapacity to defend misconceptions about Africans      

Negligence of African languages invites ignorance and misconceptions about African cultural concepts. It encourages Europeans to denigrate our languages with impunity. Some professors in their very high institutions of learning call bohali or lobola “bride price” or “bride wealth.” Why can’t they admit that they cannot translate this African cultural concept into their languages? Our daughters and sisters are not goats or cattle. They have never been for sale.

Eurocentricity finds nothing wrong with calling African traditional doctors or herbalists “witchdoctors.” Can a person be a witch and a doctor at the same time?  This is senseless. And why did they call our kings “chiefs” and “chieftainesses”?  Have you ever heard of Chief George or Chieftainess Elizabeth II? By neglecting our African languages we give license to strangers to degrade our cultures by using derogatory terminology. Re kenya metsi ka tlung! They used to call our villages “kraals” but at the same time call where we keep our cattle (masaka) “cattle kraal.”

6. Ignorant interpreters may mislead the judge

We must respect and love our African languages. These languages are part of us. They are our valuable national heritage. Without them we cannot be real people. Many languages have died in the world. Bad Setswana, Sepedi and Sesotho are as good as dead. They create problems when not known properly. Take for instance, court proceedings. The interpreter must know the language well so that the judge can hear the evidence correctly.

For instance, if the accused says, “he provoked me,”  And the prosecutor says, “What was the provocation?”  And the accused says he said, “Mmao.” And the interpreter says, “he said, “your mother.”  “Your mother” in English is very innocent. But this is not what Mmao means in Sesotho. The accused is certain to be acquitted because the judge or magistrate sees nothing wrong with the word “Mmao” – “Your mother.”

In Sesotho “Mmao” is referring to private parts of your mother, depending on the tone and circumstances in which it was used. One would be a big coward if he did not immediately punish the user of such language on a mother. But I think if the Sesotho meaning and context were understood by the judge, he/she would pass the verdict of guilty for the injured party.

Ignorant interpreters of African languages contribute to imprisonment of innocent people. African languages must be taken seriously. In interpretation you do not translate words, you interpret the concept. It is the same thing in Xhosa when you say “Unyoko!” That is a deep wound of insult.

7. Development of African languages is imperative

Our African languages are very rich. But they are slow in having correct words that technology, science and other fields of knowledge are daily brewing. I may sound funny, but words such as Speaker of Parliament, computer, television, chemistry, physics, economics, economy, cell phone, ballistic missiles, hansard, biology, archaeology,  anthropology, theology, history are not Sesotho, Sepedi or Setswana. Proper words must be found for new things.

Developing African languages would put us in a situation where we can acquire some of our education in the medium of our language. Why must we know only English in order to acquire knowledge? Can we not learn carpentry, plumbing, electricity, agriculture or anything in African languages? Is chemistry, engineering, commerce, astronomy inferior when not learned in English?  Our people were astronomers, long time ago in their languages.

Chinese are taught in Chinese. They are today a nuclear power and very advanced nation that is emerging as a world super power. Einstein, a German scientist, invented the bomb. Germans have produced one of the best cars, Mercedes Benz. They do not speak any English. Those who want to learn English learn it as a subject.

They do not use it as a medium of instruction to acquire knowledge. Because we have not developed our African languages we have to learn English first before we acquire knowledge. Does chemistry, mathematics or plumbing become different when taught in African languages? No.

On 29 April 2016, non-English speaking China announced that it will launch its spaceship to Mars in 2020. This is three years from now. This is not time to gamble with African languages through which we could accumulate knowledge faster and easier. Knowledge is power. People who have no knowledge will remain behind.

8. African languages would increase knowledge

North Korea is scaring many big nations today which want to monopolise nuclear weapons.  They have acquired this knowledge in their Korean language. It is the same thing with the Russians. In Africa Amharic and Swahili languages have enabled their people to learn English as a subject but to learn many things through their indigenous or national languages. There is much for African languages to learn from Swahili language.

Their education system has not in any way become inferior to that of the rest of the world. African languages must be developed. Their importance also lies in the fact that they enable Africans to hold the Africentric view of the world instead of being fooled by the Eurocentric view of the world that has no Botho/Ubuntu and is the cause of many global problems today including wars.

English in its origin is a “Fanakalo” language. When stripped of Greek, Latin and KEMETIC, English stands completely naked. Let me give examples of English words that came from Kemetic, an ancient African language of Black Pharaohs long before it was invaded by Greeks, Romans and others. Here are English words from Kemetic language:

Ruit (to engrave): Write

Khenna (boat) : Canoe

Khekh (repulse) : Kick

Koui : Cow

Ra  (sun): Ray (sunlight)

(Introduction To African Civilisations John G. Jackson page 150, See also The Customs Of Mankind by Lillian Eichler and Book Of The Beginnings, Gerald Massey)

Ra is interesting because it is also found in Setswana language and in Sesotho Ramaseli (The Father of Light as one of the names for God.)

 9. Superiorityof Sesotho over English

For the word “wash” in the Sesotho language has several words. They describe the word with precision. For example, ho hlapa (washing hands), ho iphotla (washing the face), ho tola ( washing the whole body), ho ikutletsa (washing the feet using a stone), ho hlatswa (washing clothes).

The concept of God is also clearer in African languages. In English He is called God. The meaning is not clear. In Kemet (ancient Egypt) Ra was the name for God. The Venda people call God Raluvhimba. This has the concept of the Greatest One. The old name for God in Zulu is Mvelingqangi – the One Who Came Into Existence On His Own. This is close to the name Ngai for God in Gikuyu language in Kenya. It means one who has no father or mother –“the Creator and Giver of all things.” Sepedi, Setswana and Sesotho and Serotse/Lozi in Zambia call God ModimoMoholimo – the one who inhabits and reigns in the heavens. The Swahili name for God in Tanzania is Mungu. It means One Who Does Not Discriminate, A Giver. They pray “Mungu abariki Afrika” – God bless Afrika.

10. Problems of English are not African problems

African languages must not concern themselves with the problems of the English language. In European countries that speak English some Christians have a problem with the pronouns “he” and “she” and with the noun “man.” The Sesotho languages say God made man in His image. Some English speaking people say this is “male chauvinism.” The Sesotho Bible uses the word motho – human being – hence ntate o fihlile. Mme o fihlile. Sesotho does not use different pronouns for father and mother.

The English problem of “Chairman”

When it comes to chairman the English speaking people have a problem. Sesotho and Nguni languages have no problem. They are comfortable with modulasetulo and Mgcinisihlalo (chairman). In African languages here it does not show whether the person in the chair is a man or a woman.

The English language has another problem with the pronoun “he,” with reference to God. Sesotho languages have no such problem.

The pronoun that these languages use do not indicate whether God is a man or a woman. African languages are in accord with African Traditional Religion that perceives God as Supreme Spirit.

11.  World’slanguages came from Africa

There is an interesting discovery of where language originated. On 15 April 2011, Science Journal published a study that puzzled many English-speaking people in Britain, Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand. This was a study done by Dr. Kuentin D. Atkinson of Auckland University in New Zealand. This scientific study has found that every language on earth has come from a single pre-historic African mother-tongue.

The 504 languages Dr. Atkinson studied and analysed have been traced to a Stone Age dialect from Africa. Dr. Atkinson has found that “The further away from Africa a language spoken is, the fewer the sounds it has. English has 46 sounds. The San people in South Africa [Azania] use a staggering 200 sounds.” (Science Journal April 2011)

Dr. Atkinson’s study has shown that language evolved at least one hundred thousand years ago. His findings were that every language from English to Mandarin [of the Chinese] evolved from a pre-historic mother tongue spoken in Africa thousands of years ago. He pointed out that “…the number of distinct sounds, in languages tends to increase the closer it is to the Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Prof. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at Oxford University, has confirmed that “Languages grew from a seed in Africa.” (New York Times 14 April 2011)

For his part Prof.  Mark Pagel of Reading University in England has confirmed that this same effect can be seen also in D.N.A. Africans have much greater genetic diversity than Europeans.

12.  Sotho and Nguni languages admired

The worst enemies of Africans in South Africa have admitted the musical charm of Sesotho and Nguni languages. H.R. Abercrombie in his book Africa’s Peril (page 45) has observed, “Now we come to an entirely different type of individual classed collectively as Bantu, of many tribes, but probably of common origin. Their language is full of musical charm and lends itself to flights of oratory. It is expressive and of perfect construction. The two great branches of this are known as Zulus or Matebele and Basuto.”

How can we throw away our golden languages that have so much beauty and history of being the mother of European languages? The superiority of African poetry is such that its concepts cannot be easily translated into English. This is where a proverb of our languages warns us:


*DR MOTSOKO PHEKO delivered this address at the Department of Languages University of South Africa, 12 October 2016.

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