You took the Xhosa words right out of my mouth

Being a first-language English speaker in South Africa can be like living in a mono-lingual culture bubble. Trying to burst that bubble is a fascinating adventure.
By Hagen Engler

Have I thought of learning Xhosa? I am learning Xhosa! Christ, I’ve been learning Xhosa since 1984! Unfortunately the only purpose for which I am practically equipped to use Xhosa is asking bhuti at the petrol station to fill up with 93. And khawukhangel’umoya. And I could probably buy a bag of weed too, theoretically. Probably from the same petrol attendant.

The reasons I speak it so badly are probably the same reason my Afrikaans has atrophied into a barely useful relic of my bilingual days at Laerskool Lorraine. Most second-language English speakers are great at English. So what would be the point of us hacking along with my crap Afrikaans, or my even worse isiXhosa, when we can have a stimulating conversation in excellent English!

The same applies to German, which I am even worse at. I know that it’s a poor excuse to say everyone’s second-language skills are better than English people’s second-language skills, but they are. I once worked with a lady for eight years before I even realised she was Afrikaans-speaking. Eventually I overheard her talking to her sister on the phone in vlot – and rather sexy, I’m not gonna lie – Afrikaans. I was aghast. “What? You’re Afrikaans? Why wasn’t I told?”

She said, “Ja, why not? My name’s Natasha Deyzel. Didn’t you ever think I might be Afrikaans?”

I said, “No! I thought you were just one of those Afrikaans people who speak English.”

“I am!” she shrieked, “But that doesn’t mean I’m not Afrikaans!”

I had to shake my head and begin face-palming myself into a coma. Yet another case where I blow my own mind with my oblivious, lifelong racism.

With black people, my preconceptions dictate that they probably are second-language English speakers. But again, they are such old hands at it that their facility with the language of Shakespeare and Churchill and Cleese is no different to mine.

The word Xhosa people use for speaking English is ukukhumsha. Lord alone knows what the provenance of that word might be. When I marvelled at how strange it was that the word for speaking English bears no resemblance to any English words, my wife Baby retorted, “But it’s not an English word. It’s a Xhosa word, about people speaking English.”

This implies for me that speaking English is not done out of love or admiration for the magnificent, malleable English tongue. It’s a tactic, a skill, a strategy. The Xhosa have probably been khumshing since the late 1700s, when British traders first ventured into the land of Ngqika, which is to say, Xhosas have been speaking English for as long as it’s been practical.

I like to imagine that the word khumsha has something to do with the High Commissioner of South Africa in colonial days. He would certainly have spoken English, being as pale as driven snow and from England.

So the Xhosa have been khumshing, the Afrikaners have been praating rooinektaal and us English speakers have smugly expected them to. The result is that we are now culturally handicapped.

Race sceptic that I am, I believe that one reason white people eschew exclusively black company, such as attending black events, is because we would have no idea what is going on there. Our language abilities are so poor that we’ve become social paraplegics, no quadriplegics.

If, god forbid, we ever end up at a real “people’s function”, we either stand blankly at the back of the room, or we end up ruining some poor black guy’s evening by having him stand translating into our ear everything that’s said like we’re Nikita Khrushchev on a state visit to Hollywood.

Conversely, most black folks are amply equipped to function in an English-only environment – that’s what the South African workplace is these days, anyway. So they at least get to experience the entirety of South African culture, with the possible exception of the odd braai in Danville and committee meetings of the Orania Golf Club.

Ironically, the dominance of English has ghettoised us English cats. Our language rules the economic and media mainstream, but that’s all we have access to. Venture outside the big cities and you better speak vernac or you’re stuffed. Afrikaans will at least get you somewhere, being the language of the farm and all. But you don’t want to be the only Engelsman in Prieska. I know, because I’ve been that oke.

But we stay in our tiny urban comfort zones, secure in the belief that that’s all there is worth knowing. After all, that’s all the English-language media ever tell us about. Many people live out their lives in these little enclaves. I’m convinced we’re doing ourselves a massive disservice.

There is an old lyric by SA punk-rock band Asylum Kids about being a man in a bathroom, but living in a bathtub. In a similar way, perhaps one reason us whiteys don’t learn any vernac is because of the self-fulfilling belief that there’s nothing to suit our First-World, contemporary-sophisticate internationalist tastes in black culture.

The other reason is that African languages are bloody hard to learn. Not impossible, though. And not as hard as Thai, I’m told.

I’m convinced it’s not the language itself, but the accent. After decades of rocking the whole “Molo-unjani-khona-ndiyaphila-enkosi” preamble, the bottom still falls out of my world the minute we get the introductions out of the way and the person starts actually speaking Xhosa to me. The accent of spoken Xhosa makes it hard follow and I start getting tjommie-pulses of embarrassment as I lose the thread of the conversation. I have to come with the xolo-andiva-siyazam’ukufund’-uthetha and then we lapse into English.

Because, as we said, their English is guaranteed to be better than my Xhosa. Whip out your Learn Xhosa-quality Xhosa and you’ll soon be unmasked as a beginner. I try not pretend to be anything but that. Otherwise you’ll look like a wannabe-Johnny-Clegg, fake-vernac-speaking poser.

So unless you’re just greeting someone in passing, best not to even bring up the fact that “Actually, I know a bit of Xhosa”. Just leave it in the boot, as it were. Perhaps the odd word that you’ve picked up from watching Live Amp or Tsha Tsha or listening to Thandiswa Mazwai will help you follow some vernac conversation without requiring a translator.

There is also an interesting irony to some black people’s attitude to white vernac speakers – particularly in the city. Some people will love it when a white person speaks good vernac. But they hate it when you speak crap vernac. Trying your beginner Zulu on them will seem condescending. You get this look like, “What? Don’t you think I can speak English? Why are you speaking guidebook Zulu to me? Am I a cultural curiosity to you?”

By contrast, if your Zulu is polished and tight, men will welcome you like a brother and women will melt into a rippling puddle of lust at your feet. But quite how you’re supposed to get from the frowned-upon crap vernac to the lauded “fluent vernac” has never been explained to me.

I sometimes think the only way to really rock the vernac is to have it found in your mouth, as they say. You need to grow up speaking it. So the same guys who grow up on the farms, those country bumpkins in the two-tone farm shirts and shorts, those are the guys who understand African languages.

My mate OR is a white guy who grew up on a farm in the Eastern Cape. His first language was Sotho, after which he learned Xhosa. Only when he turned five and began attending school did he pick up English.

OR can order a Black Label at a bar and within seconds he’ll have the entire staff complement in the palm of his hand. The magic word seems to be mhlekaz’.

Another racist generalisation I can offer is that black dudes love it when you call them mhlekaz’.

Women… Ag, don’t get me started. Sometimes women try to drag OR into the toilets at bars to have their way with him. He has to fend them off, or change back to English to save his modesty.

Another cultural curiosity I’ve noticed is that the white guys from the rural areas who speak decent vernac often display a set of political attitudes way out of step with neoliberal, big-city values.

It’s not impossible to hear a clanging K-bomb from the mouth of your uncle who grew up in the Kei among the people and ran a trading store all his life. Try calling him on it and you’ll be told you don’t understand.

That’s right. I don’t understand. What I do see is that these rural white dudes are past any notions of the noble savage, of patronising accommodation of their black brethren. They do not fetishise African culture the way us city dwellers are prone to, us with our Arts degrees and our couple of weekends in the township with Habitat For Humanity.

The white man in Africa – I mean the white man in real, rural Africa – seems to be content in his understanding that he is not black. He is a member of a particular tribe, a white tribe of Africa. He can learn the local lingo, understand many of the customs, but he’s still of another tribe, and proud of it.

He has found Xhosa in his mouth, or learned to thetha when he moved to the country the same way the AmaRharhabe learned to khumsha when it was practical.

Maybe these people actually have a better grasp of race relations than us bleeding-heart, DA-voting, Daily Maverick-reading, black friend-having, integrated nightclub-rocking city liberals. Maybe they do, but they also have a helluva difficult time fitting into the big-city vibe – unless they’re able to bring their rural network to town with them, in which case they soon become kings.

I didn’t grow up in the country, but I’m descended from people who did. Within my lifetime I’ve watched my mother lose her Xhosa. She grew up in Port St Johns working at her dad’s petrol station. Then she moved to the regional business capital of Port Elizabeth to work and within a couple of decades of disuse, her Xhosa vocab had pretty much disappeared. She retained the ability to understand it, but like her son, she plays this one close to her chest.

Having witnessed this, and with a black wife proudly rocking my surname in her Twitter handle, I’m determined to do better. In the course of my spurious lifetime here in southern Africa I will at least gradually be able to speak a bit more African as time goes by. Not less.

I currently own eight isiXhosa phrase books, dictionaries, CDs and personal notebooks. Besides that, there is a fistful of websites I frequent and a first-language Xhosa speaker on Twitter on the couch here who at the drop of a hat will explain the spelling of ukuqhankqalaza, if not where the word comes from. It means “to protest”, by the way.

So I should be able to improve at the very least. Whether I’ll ever be fluent remains to be seen, but we live in hope.

This is an extract from Marrying Black Girls For Guys Who Aren’t Black by Hagen Engler. (MFBooks/Jacana), on sale October 24.

This piece first appeared in Mail & Guardian

Writer, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach. I've been involved in 30+ book projects - for myself and for clients, partners and colleagues. Experience in marketing, PR, advertising, television, print and digital, corporate and editorial. Former editor of FHM magazine. Currently Director, Editorial and Content at Ogilvy PR, Johannesburg. Musical performance, spoken word as Inspector Ras. Guitar/vocals for The Near Misses, (Worst Band In JoburgTM). @hagenengler

One Comment

  1. I love your blog. I found it today through a Facebook friend. I admire your writing and your understanding of the “black psyche”. Being umXhosa probably has something to do with it 🙂

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