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Tuesday, 04 March 2008

Interpreter, Please! Learning Zulu in South Africa - Page 3

Written by Kelly N. Patterson
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“Where are you going this time?”  Family and friends asked.

“Well, I can’t exactly pronounce it,” I confessed.  “But I can spell it:  H-L-A-B-I-S-A.”

“Where?” they chorused.

“It’s a rural area in north-western Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa.”

Blank looks followed by further questioning: “But where in South Africa?  I mean which country?  Zimbabwe?  Zambia?”

“I need the keys!”  I repeated.

She hesitated, looked alarmingly at Caesar, rolled down the window slowly, then awkwardly, leaned out the window and gave me a kiss.

“Well, thank you, but I just need the keys to get into my house,” I blushed.

“Oh!” she gasped and started giggling. “I thought you said you needed a kiss!”

A few days later, with Happy’s assistance, I arranged an executive committee meeting in order to introduce myself to the entire staff.  The meeting was supposed to start at 9 am.  By 10 am, only a fraction of the guests had arrived.  I became concerned that my invitations had not been delivered, or worse, disregarded.

Happy frowned—we could not begin until all the executive committee members were present.

“But don’t worry, “she said.  “They are coming just now.”

It took me months but here are my translations of “South African Time”:

S.A. English American English

now                                                                           now

now now                                                                   10 to 20 minutes

just now                                                                     one hour or so

soon                                                                          not in your lifetime


At around 11 am, most guests sauntered into the meeting hall, with the exception of Mr. Xulu, the executive treasurer.  I asked Happy if she was certain she had sent Mr. Xulu an invitation.

Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa

“Kelly, Mr. Xulu is late, “she responded.

“Well, let’s wait just 10 more minutes and then if Mr. Xulu still does not show up, then we will begin regardless.”

Happy frowned with her eyebrows (Zulus have mastered what I call “eyebrow language”—a distinct non-verbal communication system done solely with the eyebrows) and said, “Mr. Xulu has been late for six month now.”

This statement completely perplexed me.

“What do you mean he’s been late for six months?!”

“He is not coming,” she whispered, paused and concluded, “Ever.”

We exchanged sinister eyebrow looks.  Mr. Xulu died six months ago.  From then on there was constant confusion about whether an absent person was just “running late” or dead.


And in Zulu, the words “right” and “left” appear to be greatly under-utilized.  When asking for directions, Zulus will point to a general direction and say, “Hamba (go) dat way.”

“Which way?”

“Dat way!” pointing vigorously.  “Then after the robot, turn dat way.”

They indicate “dat way” in an opposite direction and after four “dat ways” one is terribly lost.

(Page 3 of 4)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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