IsiZulu goes sci-tech
One man has invented 450 new science and technology words in isiZulu – and now a film has been made about his work. Charl Blignaut and Khotso Sello report
IsiZulu will eventually become extinct because there are not enough books written in South Africa’s largest official language, and because schools are increasingly teaching in English, says Phiwayinkosi Gift Mbuyazi.
And those are not the only problems.
“I studied to be an engineer. One of the things I soon realised is missing from isiZulu and other indigenous languages are words related to science and technology. IsiZulu is not keeping up with the language of new technologies,” he says.
And so the 41-year-old writer, who was born in Obanjeni, in rural KwaZulu-Natal, is on an extraordinary mission to keep his mother tongue alive – and up to date.
He has invented a dictionary of 450 brand new words in the Zulu language to explain contemporary terms instead of just reverting to English.
Take the word “planet”, for example. “In isiZulu we have the word ‘umhlaba’ which refers to the earth but there aren’t any other words that refer to Jupiter, Mercury, Pluto and the like.
“If you observe the movement of the planets, they appear to hover around the sun, which is why I named them ‘umzulane’ which means ‘going round’.”
After all, he explains in a new documentary on his life and work, the English word is derived from the Greek “planetai” which means “to hover or wander”.
The short documentary is called The Adventures of the Wiby Kid, named after the title of Mbuyazi’s first book – or Amayiphendleya, in isiZulu.
A gentle, stylish, Afrofuturist affair, the documentary was produced by Little Pond Productions – an offshoot of the Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking in Joburg.
It was directed by Lerato Moloi, a young filmmaker who also works as a DJ on 5fm. Her passion for discovering her own roots and for indigenous languages led her to Mbuyazi, the uncle of one of her friends.
“The story within the story is the birth of language and how it makes us distinct as a species,” says Moloi of the film. The lead character in the book is a boy called Kwetu who has a passion for discovery and dreams of space travel.
“I began writing my book in 2009,” explains Mbuyazi. “I committed myself to writing in isiZulu but then I began to realise how many words, phrases and ideas I needed to use didn’t have an isiZulu equivalent.”
And so began his process of creating new words.
He doesn’t follow a scientific method. Sometimes his words are derived from Greek, sometimes from the sound they make and sometimes from fusing old isiZulu words with modern ones.
Raised in Mtubatuba, today Mbuyazi lives in a mostly white suburb in Joburg where he writes books and creates isiZulu crosswords. He is frustrated by the lack of visibility of his language. “Where I live there are not many Afrikaans speakers but there are six Afrikaans-medium schools. I go to Exclusive Books and there’s a whole rack of Afrikaans literature but almost no books in isiZulu.”
So, for his part, Mbuyazi has become a language activist. “If you buy a TV the manual is in all these languages – Chinese and Swedish and the like.
There is never an African language. We need to shake up our minds and take the right steps to spread our languages to all nations in the world.”