Maverick Citizen

Coronavirus Times

The language of lockdown: Excuse me, do you speak Covid?

The language of lockdown: Excuse me, do you speak Covid?
Tshwane traditional Healer Majoko Hlongwane wears a mask and gloves to help curb the spread of Covid-19. (Photo by Gallo Images / Daily News / Raymond Morare)

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, a whole new set of terms entered our lexicon. Broadcasters, translators and language practitioners had to scramble to find ways to translate them into indigenous languages.

The proverbial biblical tale of the Tower of Babel doesn’t come close to conveying the somersaults expected of indigenous language practitioners called upon to translate Covid-19-speak from English into the other 10 official South African languages.

“The information coming from the World Health Organisation, the National Department of Health and the Institute for Communicable Diseases came in English; so the first call was to translate the information into indigenous languages,” says Dr Napjadi Letsoalo, a language professional based at Unisa.

Prof Franz Kruger, head of Wits Journalism and director of the Wits Radio Academy, says de facto, English has become the pre-eminent national language in all sorts of respects, whether it is in the president’s speeches or whether it is in court, whether in schools or in broadcast. 

“There is a lot of discussion to be had about how to safeguard and give due respect to all the other languages that are spoken, particularly the smaller ones, in terms of language.”

The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), NGOs and individual linguists were contacted at short notice to get involved in communicating the language of the pandemic to all South Africans in accessible language.

Given the urgency, the process of consensus-seeking that is the norm for coining new terms was not possible. 

“Coining doesn’t involve one person. You have to consult. I did my best to consult. Informal feedback was that people got the message,” said Xitsonga language specialist, Delwah Mathevula.

Dr Bulelwa Nokele, an IsiXhosa language specialist, points out that “some of the new words will be accepted; others will be rejected by the communities. Those that are accepted will then become part of the IsiXhosa lexicon.”

Letsoalo said language practitioners worked informally in silos rather than as a formal collective. His group, focusing on Sesotho sa Lebowa (Northern Sotho/Pedi/SePedi), turned to traditional healers based in Limpopo, who are at the interface between communities and healthcare facilities, to come up with language that people – especially those in deep rural areas – would understand. 

Linguist Pule Welch says “if you are dealing with issues around particular technical topics – in this case, epidemiology – you need to go to the experts in the field, who, in this case are traditional healers.”

Grassroots medical practitioner and logotherapist, Dr Alphonse Kanda, agrees: “I think we don’t realise that traditional healers are very much in contact with their community… they are in tune with and informed about what is going on in the community. 

“They have not only the language but even the way words are used, the rituals that are used – all of that transmits a particular message. So with a condition like Covid-19, which is a new illness, you will need to find new concepts to communicate it to people.”

“We took those terminologies and tested them with sample groups of speakers and found out that they understood them – so that is how we came up with Covid-19 terminologies,” Letsoalo said.

Sesotho sa Lebowa newsreaders and current affairs presenters worked with the linguists to standardise Covid-19 language used on air: “Initially there was confusion around the word ‘virus’. Three different words were used on the same radio station,” Letsoalo said.

“One can define a virus by how it looks and by what illness it produces. The coronaviruses are called that because of how they look – they have tufts of interlocking proteins around their surfaces that look like a crown when observed under a microscope,” Welch said. 

“I used ‘amagoda’ to signify these tufts. A particle floating in air or water is ‘igciwane’, and viruses are very small so I diminutise to ‘igciwanyana lamagoda’ for coronavirus.”

For IsiXhosa, a new term for Covid-19 (umbuthalala) was developed, according to Nokele. 

“Even the word pandemic was new,” Ramokone Monene, a translator and newsreader for Thobela FM, said. 

“I asked a presenter of a sports show how he would use the term and he said it is a sickness that attacks a lot of people: ‘bolwetši bja go fetša setshaba’, so I used the term for about a week while my editor was away.  

“When he came back, I asked him if there was a simpler way to refer to the pandemic, and he said, “Just say ‘Leuba’.  That’s when I realised we have a term in our language, although I didn’t find the word when consulting my dictionaries.”

Mathevula discovered that suitable terms did exist in his language. “They were not used, but they were there. I just had to liberate them,” he said.

Newsreaders from Thobela FM (Sesotho sa Lebowa), Munghana Lonene FM (Xitsonga), and Phalaphala FM (Tshivena), who share office space in Limpopo, discussed how to tackle some of the Covid-19 terms. 

“Some of the presenters said that coronavirus can be compared to HIV, while Covid-19 can be compared to Aids. We ended up agreeing that the simplest way was just to use the terms as they are, because if you end up translating terms that you yourself are not sure of, it will confuse the listeners,” Monene said.

Terminology such as “self-isolation” and “quarantine” were also challenging. Interestingly, in the European context, the term “self-isolation” was first recorded in the 1830s. It originates from the Latin insulates, “‘insulated”, from insula, “island”.  The term “quarantine” comes from the Italian term, quarantina, and refers to Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness. 

Welch noted it is normal for there to be confusion in popular nomenclature: “We tend to use the same name for the disease and the virus that produces the disease. Greater awareness of the distinction is needed when we are technically defining things for official and scientific purposes, of course. It means we actually have to do the science in indigenous languages, as traditional healers have always done, but that the public isn’t aware of.”

“Covid-19 came with a lot of other terms that we were not used to,” Monene said, “like ‘mask’ for example. We knew about surgical masks and masks used by miners and people that work with chemicals, but it was not a term that we normally use. 

“I consulted with a presenter from a current affairs show and she said that it can be called Sekgepetlana sa go thiba dinko le molomo, meaning a mask that covers your mouth and your nose, but when consulting further, and listening to other presenters, they were referring to the mask as ‘sešira sefahlego’ or ‘sešira dinko le molomo’, which refers to a mask that covers the face, including the mouth and the nose. 

“It was much simpler to say it this way, and easier for people to understand. People can lose the meaning of the story because of one simple term.” 

The word “lockdown” took some thinking through. Several options were given in IsiXhosa: umahlalangendlu; ummiselo wokuhlaliswa ngendlu; ukumiswa ngxi kweentshukumo and ukumiswa kwelizwe.

In translating the term for the 3,300,000 Xitsonga speakers (StatsSA 2019 figures), Mathevula said, “we had to actually create a picture in people’s minds, because it was the first time we faced this kind of situation”.

“The starting point was to understand what action was being called for,” Monene said. “Okay, so lockdown means that people should just stay home, locked in. So we said, Kiletšo ya mosepelo, meaning that you are locked in and prevented from going anywhere.”

The IsiXhosa term used for lockdown, ukumiswa kwentshukumo, literally means “the stopping of activities”, Nokele explained.

Terminology such as “self-isolation” and “quarantine” were also challenging. Interestingly, in the European context, the term “self-isolation” was first recorded in the 1830s. It originates from the Latin insulates, “‘insulated”, from insula, “island”.  The term “quarantine” comes from the Italian term, quarantina, and refers to Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness. 

“When I thought about it, self-isolation and quarantine are really the same,” Monene said. “When you are in quarantine, and even when you self-isolate, you are placed aside… away from people. 

“We ended up saying that self-isolation is putting yourself aside (go ipeela thoko) and for quarantine, we said, go ba lefelong la karogano, which means, to be aside… away from other people, or isolated.”

UKZN linguist, Bhek’sipho Velanemntfwana Sibiya said on Facebook: “Social distancing has always been our weapon as Africans, as each and every family lived in a manner that was somewhat isolated and only gathered for a particular reason such as protection against wars, ploughing parties (lilima) and national ceremonies… Congested townships are a product of colonialism and apartheid. Let’s take a lesson from our own way of life.”

Community radio stations have more freedom in how they use language, although Mathevula found that Xitsonga speakers adopt the language used by the SABC radio station.

Jayshree Pather, an independent community radio consultant and trainer, said “a lot of community radio stations tend to take their news from what is happening nationally. I am not sure whether there isn’t always the language, or whether people fully understand the issues, and yes, where they are informing and disseminating information to their communities without all the facts and information, to be able to do that properly.”

“The bubonic plague, the tsunami, when the Web started developing… there was a whole vocabulary that developed. It is universal.  It is not unique to Covid, but there are new words that erupt very suddenly and people have to scramble – within an hour sometimes – to find a term that will work.” 

Despite agreement, newsreaders insert terms based on the dialect used by the communities from which they come. 

“We update our own dictionaries all the time because a lot of people have different ways of saying the same words. When you hear words used by a current affairs presenter and radio presenter, you will find that they mean the same thing, but they are using different words,” Monene said.

According to Wits’ Kruger, there are these dialects, but like with other language groups, there is a significant degree of intelligibility between the different languages, which is what matters on radio.” 

Kruger and colleagues from the Wits Radio Academy conducted a survey of community (private) radio stations. The team divided the 67 out of 249 stations surveyed into geographical, ethnic and religious, campus and entertainment. A total of 19 languages are spoken on the stations surveyed.

Linguists from Unisa agreed that Covid-19 has given impetus to the evolution of local languages. “This situation allowed us to remember that languages develop when they are being used. If they are not going to be used, they are going to die,” Letsoalo said.

Nokele added that Covid-19 “provided a space for languages to develop”.

Monene pointed out that newsreaders are presented with new terms daily: “You cannot read the news without finding a new term.”

Kruger agrees: “The bubonic plague, the tsunami, when the Web started developing… there was a whole vocabulary that developed. It is universal.  It is not unique to Covid, but there are new words that erupt very suddenly and people have to scramble – within an hour sometimes – to find a term that will work.” 

Indigenous language practitioners are divided on whether or not “Taal” – an eclectic mix of languages used widely by South Africans – should be embraced by indigenous languages. 

“A lot of people speak five, six, even more languages quite comfortably… people can switch very quickly from one language to another,” Kruger said.

Panellists in a recent online discussion organised by the Unisa Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages on the topic “Language in a Changing Environment: Mzansi Taal and Indigenous Languages”, shared different perspectives. The panel was facilitated by Letsoalo. The panellists were: Prof Koliswa Moropa; Dr Fiona Ferris; Delvah Mathevula; Pule Welch; Tiego Somo and Kealeboga Sello.

Some argued strongly that without the standardisation of language, there would be chaos. Welch said, “if you say ‘Taal’ mustn’t penetrate, it is a protection of the status quo. Sometimes there is a good reason for it, but most of the time it is just classism and racism.” 

Dr Fiona Ferris, whose work focuses on language, race and identities, said that “if you remove all these colloquialisms, all these ways of being – it is not just ways of speaking, it is the way we represent ourselves and the way we represent our worlds – then we are taking away some of our DNA. 

“I think by acknowledging ‘Taal’, we are also embracing our diversity as South Africans.” DM

Melody Emmett is an independent researcher, writer, editor and workshop facilitator. Her experience as a writer spans journalistic writing, fiction and non-fiction writing, screenplay writing and report writing. She has a long history in the nonprofit sector as a human rights activist, researcher, project coordinator and writer. She serves on the executive of the Southern African Freelance Association (SAFREA).


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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