How do you say Zulu without a “z”?

Housekeeping: If there is a change to the blog, news that I do not want a separate post for congratulations I want to issue, I will place it in italics here.

On that note, I have had questions about the fate of my Master’s of Public Health (MPH) so here is clarification. I am tabling my MPH with a gracious 2 year leave of absence from the university. Technically I am an active student (and should have access to my catmail if international firewalls permit) but I will not continue my coursework until after Peace Corps. My graduate institution does not participate in the Masters International Program where volunteers attend graduate school and then start their service. Ideally, Masters International students have one year of course work before they leave, and asking placement to hold off until summer 2015 was not an option due to my medical holds. My college contemplated Peace Corps for my MPH internship, but I would not have enough coursework (and besides the Masters International format is not a great personal fit). I left with the best grade scenario and plan to return and finish my coursework in 2017 when service is over. Rest assured, I care a lot about my MPH and intend to complete it.

When you are invited to Peace Corps, sometimes the country office will provide language lessons on a computer file for you to practice. One of my close friends is invited to Mozambique and starting her Portuguese studies before the September departure (because unlike me, she is a responsible invitee). I will bust myself and say that I have not studied my languages Peace Corps gave me beyond the alphabet (graduate school has the uncanny ability to absorb your free time.) What I can tell you is that learning a target language for Peace Corps South Africa is an adventure in itself.

In the case of South Africa, there are 11 official languages including South African Sign Language, English, Afrikaans (the language or Afrikaners and basically a colloquial dialect of Dutch), and the majority of the languages are from the Bantu language family (the same linguistic group that contains Swahili and Setswana…what I learned in Botswana). The Bantu languages of South Africa are split into two branches: the Sotho-Tswana and the Ningui branch.

The CHOP program works in three provinces: Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and Kwa-Zulu Natal. Coincidently, the country office provided three language files for Sepedi, isZulu, and siSwati (the language of Swaziland). Sepedi or Northern Sotho is in the Sotho-Setswana branch and the other two are in the Nignui branch. While there are similarities in the alphabet, each languages has unique characteristics. For example, some of the words in Northern Sotho are similar to Setswana but they are different dialects. The Nignui branch stands out because it employs use of tongue clicks. It is difficult to type this phonetic feature but take the late Nelson Mandela’s ethnic group Xhosa. The “x” in isZulu and the Xhosa language is a tongue click.

If you look at a language map of South Africa, you would see that native speakers of all three languages are in close proximity to each other. What is ironic is that the all three alphabets have challenging differences.\Zulu has three distinct clicks, Siswati has one and there is no “x” or tongue clicks in Sepedi . Also, Sepedi does not have a letter “zet” or “z” which I find interesting. South Africa is bordered by Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, and the most widely spoken Bantu language is Zulu. Last I checked all countries and Zulu had “z”s and I am curious to see how they reconcile with their language’s absence of “z”.

While taking a break from packing, I was watching a TV show where they described a hipster teacher from San Francisco who was teaching himself conversational Zulu. My first thought was, how does someone teach themselves conversational Zulu voluntarily without a native speaker’s support? I have listened to a few language lessons, but think I have one generic tongue click. I need a native speaker to teach me proper annunciation for all three clicks. Zulu is exotic to Americans, probably because English has a weird “Z” aversion (besides zoos, few landmark names start with “Z”) and any language that starts with the letter “Z” is automatically cool. I just found the thought of someone teaching themselves a Bantu language in California for fun, without a native speaker’s feedback hilarious. Those who can get a language simply by listening to phrases have a rare gift, and I am not in that caliber!

The next 3 months will determine what language I will learn for the next 27 months. I think it would be fascinating to take on a language with tongue clicks, but we will see if Peace Corps feels that my brief stent with Setswana equips me with helping a community that speaks Sepedi. I am flexible, and aware that language is not my strength.

English is spoken throughout the country, but it seems like the Rainbow Nation is thriving with the linguistic diversity (and if South Africans are capable of speaking languages beyond English, then it is more than acceptable for Americans to speak Spanish and other languages, just saying). Also, while this may seem unusual, there are hundreds of indigenous languages in the United States without official language designations.

All the best,

PS: I am using my Youtube accessibility while it lasts. Hopefully the two provide a visual appreciation for the beauty of linguistic diversity.


One thought on “How do you say Zulu without a “z”?

  1. Pingback: The “Zed” Solution | Eish.

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