Zulu, the mother-tongue of South Africa’s 50 million population.
When a middle-aged South African engineer recently set out to write a novel in his native Zulu, he found himself hamstrung by a lack of words to describe modern life.
Determined not to use English as a crutch, Phiwayinkosi Mbuyazi instead created 450 new words in Zulu, the mother-tongue of a quarter of South Africa’s 50 million population.
His book, titled “Amayiphendleya”, is an adventure tale about four teenage boys and the wonders of technology. For the first time in Zulu history they come across an isilolongamoya a machine that controls the air temperature, or air conditioner.
They also come to terms with umnukubalo (pollution) and ubungqonela (colonialism), both words derived from their function or sound. Mbuyazi said his creations were motivated by a realisation that Zulu has not kept up with the developments in almost all major sectors of knowledge.
“It now lacks the terminology that would allow one to hold a conversation, let alone write a book.”
The 41-year-old is dismissive of traditionalists who would keep isiZulu meaning of the Zulu language “pure”.
“Many people speak proudly about preserving isiZulu but the truth is by keeping it unchanged we are contributing to its death,” he said.
“Languages evolve, and isiZulu need not be left behind, otherwise it will become irrelevant,” he told AFP.
He hopes that the new words will catch on with the legions people who speak Zulu as a first and second language, and eventually become part of everyday vocabulary.
But the author’s own path shows how many hurdles exist.
He had to set up his own publishing company after several mainstream houses turned him down, saying there was “no market for Zulu literature”.
A recent industry survey showed no Zulu books were published in 2011, except for religious or school books.
Some 33 books were published in Afrikaans, which is spoken by around seven million people in South Africa.
But Mbuyazi feels that little has been done to create the market for Zulu readers.
The Oxford University graduate is trying to change that. He compiles a crossword puzzle for the Sunday Times Zulu edition and wants to use his company, Mbuyazi Publishing, to get Zulu writers published.
So far the company has produced his three books.
Despite its shortfalls, Zulu has some major advantages compared to South Africa’s eight other indigenous African languages.
It is the only South African language besides English and Afrikaans in which a major national newspaper is produced.
The first Zulu newspaper Ilanga (The Sun) as published in 1903 by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) founding leader John Langalibalele Dube.
It is still in existence and has faces fierce competition from Isolezwe (The Eye of the Nation), which is owned by Irish media mogul Denis O’Brien.
Mbuyazi’s work has caught the attention of academics, some of whom caution against words being created on the hop.
Professor Nhlanhla Mathonsi, an African Languages researcher at the University of KwaZulu Natal warned that “people must not make up words just for the sake of it”.
“Creating new words takes a deep understanding of the language and it nuances… words should not confuse people but enlighten them,” he added. AFP