Language and you: Did you know?

[By Humphrey M Kapau]

For accuracy, linguists use code names to refer to each Bantu language. Actually, we only say ‘Bemba’, ‘Xhosa’ or ‘Nkoya’ for the sake of the public.

So, in case you never knew…when a linguist says ‘M42’, they are referring to Bemba because Bemba is a language found in Zone M of Bantu languages, Group 40 and is assigned Number 2 in that group. Lozi is known by the code ‘K21’ because it is found in Zone K of Bantu languages, Group 20 and is the 1st language named under that group. Lunda is referred to using the code name ‘L50’ because it is found in Zone L, Group 50 and is stand-alone language in that group (hence assigned 0). The other name for Kaonde, Nyanja, Luvale and Tonga is language L40, N30, K14 and M64 respectively.
Using my illustration above, are you able to explain what each code name for Kaonde, Nyanja, Luvale and Tonga means? I would love to hear from you.

Later this year, I will explain and simplify what this coding actually means and why it is more accurate to use as compared to calling a language ‘Sotho’, ‘Bisa’, ‘Lozi’, ‘Tabwa’, etc.


The term ‘bantu languages’ was coined by a German linguist, Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek, around the year 1857/1858 to refer to a group of related languages spoken in sub-Saharan Africa whose common word for person in plural form is generally ‘ba-ntu’. If you speak a language whose translation for ‘person’ has something in it similar (but not necessarily congruent) to ‘-ntu’, then your language belongs to the Bantu group of languages.


We use both sides of the brain (left and right hemispheres) whenever we write or speak Chinese but only one side of the brain when writing or speaking English. This is because the Chinese writing system uses more visual-spatial skills (a preserve of the right hemisphere) than the English alphabet system. Chinese writers and speakers have to remember a lot of complex characters (i.e. alphabet letters) that differ in their tone, visual and spatial arrangement. For this, using Chinese language involves right-hemisphere activity in addition to the left hemisphere (the home of language) while writing or speaking English would only involve the left hemisphere because the alphabet letters do not have visual-spatial and articulation complexities like their Chinese counterparts.


Studies have shown that whenever you learn a new language, you are improving your memory and slowing the process of aging and memory loss in old age (see Marian, 2017).


The first language to be spoken in outer space was Russian in the year 1961. It was spoken by a man named Yuri Gagarin who actually is also the first man to go into outer space. This happened long before Neil Armstrong could land on the moon in 1969.


Twins – whether identical or fraternal – usually develop a secret language when young that only the two of them can understand. This bizarre language phenomenon is called ‘cryptophasia’. Using this secret language, little twins can actually talk about you in your presence while you are there cheering and giving them hugs for being jovial babies. To know more about cryptophasia, read my article that is available on the ‘The Mast’ website (www.themastonline.com). For quick access, simply type: ‘The secret language of twin babies – the Mast online’ on Google and the article will pop up on their website. You will enjoy it.


When a part of the brain responsible for language in a baby is damaged or removed, the remaining parts of the brain simply take over the functions of the damaged or removed part. The baby grows with language competence just like any other normal child. The brain’s flexibility to adapt to such change is called neural plasticity and does not just involve language but any other brain function for which the damaged brain part was responsible. New medical research has also shown that contrary to prior knowledge that neural plasticity for language had a period in which it could only take place (originally suggested to run from childhood to around puberty), it actually does not stop but merely slows down tremendously after puberty (see Joseph, 1993:30; and Munkombwe, 2021). This is why adults are still able to learn a new language but with increasing difficulty compared to children. Isn’t nature amazing?


With eleven (11) official languages, South Africa holds the record for a country with the most number of official languages in the world.


Speech sounds you produce using both lips (e.g. ‘m’ in ‘man’) are called bilabials; those you produce using your lips and teeth (e.g. the ‘f’ in ‘fish’) are known as labiodental sounds (i.e. ‘labial’ means lip-related; ‘dental’ means teeth-related); and those you produce by forcing air around your throat (e.g. the ‘h’ in ‘Humphrey’) are known as glottal sounds.


Newly born babies have ability to distinguish between two or more languages that parents use. They do this by picking differences in tone and stress patterns during speech. So, if one parent speaks Mbunda language (a Bantu language) and the other speaks French, the newly born baby is able to distinguish between the two. This is why children are able to learn many languages with minimal confusion of usage between them (see Marian, 2017).


We all have an attachment to the language we speak, especially our mother tongue. We feel we own it and it also owns us. This makes all of us inherently supportive of our mother tongue to the extent that we can be biased and do anything for our language. So, let no one cheat you that you are linguistically biased towards your language and they are not. There is a greater chance that the accuser is himself the one who is linguistically biased but playing the game of pointing fingers.


The commonest sentence pattern in languages of the world is that of Subject-Verb-Object (e.g. ‘Jasmine–S loves–V mangoes–O’).

Bantu languages are also known as ‘tonal languages’. This is because they heavily depend on tone for precision in meaning: one word can mean a lot of things depending on how you pronounce it. For example, in Lozi language, the word ‘bona’ can mean ‘to see’ or ‘them’. In Bemba, ‘to smoke’ and ‘to pray’ is represented by one word but the tone you use to say the word determines what you are communicating. So, as you learn new words in any Bantu language, pay extra attention to tone. Do you have examples in your own language? Please let me know.


Next week, I will look at the controversies surrounding the definition of ‘mother tongue’. Well, if you thought ‘mother tongue’ simply means the language of your parents especially that of your father, then you are in for a surprise next Friday. Many thanks for your unwavering support, both local and international. Remember, you can also access this column online at www.themastonline.com, under columns section.

This article is dedicated to a fallen UNZA linguist, Mrs Maureen Musale, who passed away last month. She was a versatile scholar and a passionate lecturer of linguistics in the Department of Literature and Languages at the University of Zambia. Zambia has lost an oasis of linguistic knowledge.

The author is a systemic functional linguist and Special Research Fellow (PhD) at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. His other research fields include neurolinguistics, forensic linguistics, psycholinguistics, semiotics, corpus linguistics, cognitive linguistics, African languages and literature. He has also taught language at UNZA.

Contact: hmksettings@rocketmail.com; WhatsApp: +260 956 315380.

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