#isiPhambanakabili: An isiZulu term for ‘hashtag’ and the question of new words

17 Dec 2019 - 05:30
Hashtag. Image courtesy of the APC.


A Contribution by MA student, Wade Smit

New phenomena, trends, and concepts are created everyday – many drawing on older knowledges and ideas and modifying them, blending them into some new configuration. Some are entirely new ideas. All of them are articulated through words. However, the imbalance of privilege and power afforded to some languages today, having come out of histories of colonialism, conquest, and political upheavals, has left certain languages more venerated than others regarding the production of knowledge, perceived linguistic malleability, and perceived intelligibility. This often leaves some languages thought of as having ‘more to prove’ in order to be taken as seriously as others in academia, in media, and in the everyday, despite the incredible intellectual work taking place within those languages.

isiZulu is just one language among many that exemplifies this context, where there are, and long have been, many scholars, researchers, journalists, thinkers etc who are actively writing and thinking in isiZulu in ways that appreciate the conceptual depth of terms already extant, future word possibilities, and who are creating hundreds of new terms to facilitate the natural growth and change of the language. Phiwayinkosi Mbuyazi, author of Amayiphendleya and an engineer, and Busisiwe Ngomangwe Mazibuko, manager and author of Facebook page Zulu Vocabulary, are just two independent writers who have respectively contributed hundreds upon hundreds of new, mostly scientific and technological terms in isiZulu. Publications like Bayede newspaper are also creating and finding new terminology in isiZulu and introducing it to the reading public through their use in articles. Some examples are ‘gxifa’ (print), ‘ingqayi’ (film), ‘isichuse’ (statue), ‘isincithi’ (sugar), ‘ichwe’ (atom), ‘indeni’ (nucleus), ‘inxelesi’, (electron), ‘isixwexwe somnyibiliko’ (solifluction sheet). The list can feel endless.

In 2018 I came up with the word ‘isiphambanakabili’ as an isiZulu term for ‘hashtag’, which, I had found at the time, had no equivalent in isiZulu. ‘Isiphambanakabili’ can be broken down as a combination of ‘phambana’/‘isiphambano’ (to intersect or cross/an intersection or cross) and ‘kabili’ (twice), which then means ‘that which intersects twice’, evoking the appearance of the hashtag itself. In creating this word, I was engaging with isiZulu not as a linguist or scholar, but as a reader and writer of isiZulu using the language and its own ‘materials’ and ‘tools’ to fill in its own gaps, and to produce a piece of writing that felt more coherent. As simple as the word might be – in fact, perhaps because of its simplicity – the process reminded me that engaging with the use of any language both within and without the academy is simply to engage with change.

To create new words, new contexts and meanings for words already extant, is a granular and gradual process of this engagement with change, and is responsible for the ‘normalisation’ of a language in contexts which were previously outlawed, disallowed, discouraged, disbelieved. And as South African universities continue to grapple meaningfully with questions of language, epistemology, methodology, and legacies of colonialism, I think that it is this granular work which can accessibly pave the way forward for using side-lined languages in research, in our institutions, and in our society. ‘Isiphambanakabili’ might be a small contribution to a South African lexicon, and it may not even be picked up and used, but perhaps it can simply serve as an example of thinking through a language, experimenting in it, and being open with those experimentations in order to then be critiqued, modified, and improved upon by others.