On its recently upgraded banknotes, the South African Reserve Bank has shockingly misspelt the Xitsonga word for “Reserve Bank”, rendering it as bangikulu instead of the standard banginkulu, which the bank had been using until only a few weeks ago.
Talk about fixing something that is not broken.
In a sense, this is worse than the Coke can Xitsonga profanity scandal of 2019. Some of us don’t drink Coke, but all of us need and use banknotes.
More than merely omitting the letter “n” from the word ‘banginkulu’, the SA Reserve Bank has committed an enormous linguistic crime against a people whose history is riddled with all manner of linguistic crimes.
Linguistic violence occurs when a small group of powerful people, unilaterally distort, invent and impose their linguistic experiments, shenanigans and preferences upon an innocent majority.
Africans know all about the brutal colonial make-as-you-go orthographies in terms of which names of people, places and things were mutilated beyond recognition.
Is it not bad enough that some among us walk around with mutilated names and surnames? Must we now walk around with banknotes that mutilate and deface our indigenous languages?
The missionaries and colonialists who first reduced Xitsonga into writing considered the Vatsonga to be barbarians who were just a level higher than butterflies — hence the title of the late Patrick Harries’ book on the imposition of foreign knowledge systems upon the Vatsonga: Butterflies & Barbarians.
Such was the unilateral and unfettered power of the missionaries and their colonial counterparts on Xitsonga orthography and publishing, that scholars such as Leroy Vail concluded that, in the process, missionaries actually invented their own new toy languages.
One would never have thought that a pivotal and respected national institution such as the SA Reserve Bank would, at this stage in our history, be wilfully drawn into the dark arts of linguistic violence. As helpless citizens, there are so many ways in which we feel the crushing power of the SA Reserve Bank, but we never suspected that its devastating power would also manifest through linguistic violence.
Apparently, the SA Reserve Bank decision was based on its consultations with one source only: the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB).
In one media report, a spokesperson said the SA Reserve Bank was constitutionally required to consult with PanSALB. Only with PanSALB? It is not the duty of PanSALB to impose its linguistic eccentricities either upon the citizenry or upon the SA Reserve Bank.
The backstory is quite infuriating.
The self-importance and arrogance of PanSALB
Sometime in 2019, PanSALB signed off on an 86-page booklet — just a little longer than an expanded tourist brochure — authored by PanSALB’s mighty Xitsonga National Language Board.
The booklet boasts a bibliography of less than 20 references of uneven quality and relevance. Contrast that with a typical scholarly article of 10 pages which tends to have upwards of 50 actually used entries in its bibliography.
This PanSALB Xitsonga orthography “bible” of 2019 is lightweight, untested, poorly marketed, largely unknown and not easily accessible to the public. But it is apparently famous among members of PanSALB’s inner circle. Since PanSALB seems to listen only to itself, it saw no problem either in being the only body consulted by the SA Reserve Bank or keeping its booklet a private secret.
Rumour has it that, since May 2022, a revised version of the PanSALB booklet lies in state, amidst the precious rubble in the dark and desolate basement at the PanSALB offices.
“Huvo ya Rixaka ya Ririmi ra Xitsonga (HURIRIXI) hi yona muhlayisinkulu na mulanguterinkulu wa ririmi ra Xitsonga. Hi yona ntsena leyi nga na matimba ya ku antswisa xiyimo hi ku cinca maletere yo karhi, ku ma susa na/ kumbe ku ma engetela laha maletere ya kona ya vangaka xiphiqo eka vatirhisi varirimi.”
As per the above, quoted from their 2019 booklet, the PanSALB Xitsonga Language Board describes itself as the custodians of the Xitsonga language and says that it is they alone who have the authority and power to “improve” the status of the language by removing and adding letters should they deem such letters to be problematic to language users.
Such a sense of self-importance! Such arrogance!
The booklet is mealy-mouthed about the need for consultation with practitioners of the language, anthropologists, historians of language, educationists, language technologists and other key stakeholders.
Heads in the clouds
No wonder PanSALB has struggled to respond meaningfully to the public outcry that has broken out since the publication of the new banknotes. There is not a hint of a willingness to listen. Its media statement of 8 May and subsequent broadcast media interventions have been completely tone-deaf.
With their heads firmly planted in the clouds, the PanSALB members proceeded to lecture angry speakers of Xitsonga about compound nouns, allomorphs, noun classes and the like. As if knowing about these was a requirement for speaking and writing the language.
PanSALB’s main explanation and defence for its latest linguistic crime rests on the suggestion that in Xitsonga, only complex nouns belonging to the first noun class (referring to human beings) deserve the “n” but the rest must go only with “k”. PanSALB says it must be correct in its argument because its own booklet says so. Can an argument be weaker?
If we remove the quasi-academic red herrings from the PanSALB gobbledygook, its argument is based on a Germanic and Romance language framework. But I wouldn’t trust them to be fully aware of this.
You see, the insistence on a strict differentiation between human beings and non-human things — albeit thinly based on the first noun class — is, strictly speaking, not part of the cosmology of African languages and of African cosmology itself. In many African languages, most entities with human-like characteristics, human-like impact, impact on humans or entities made for human use are humanised, and routinely and regularly transported into the first noun class.
Now, what can be more invasive, more impactful, and more human-like than a big bank that stands in the middle of the circle of all banks?
And think about this: the reason many African languages have noun classes, instead of the gender obsession of the Germanic and Romance languages, is because we have a broader view of life, in terms of which humans and nature and things coexist in a complex relational cosmology.
PanSALB and the SA Reserve Bank have no business running roughshod over our linguistic rights. Xitsonga is neither a Germanic nor a Romance language.
Revert to banginkulu
The word ‘banginkulu’ is not only correct, it is aligned with our African cosmology.
Imagine a lobola delegation of Vatsonga, seated inside a rondavel somewhere in Nkowankowa, spreading on to a colourful nceka (traditional cloth) a pile of banknotes that blatantly abuse their own language. Imagine Vatsonga members of a stokvel counting little mountains of these offensively spelt banknotes at a village somewhere near Gandlanani.
Imagine a villager paying his admission of guilt penalty to the local chief in offensive banknotes.
Imagine Vatsonga worshippers at their ancestral shrines, grave sites and churches, making offerings in banknotes containing linguistic violence.
SA Reserve Bank, please remove the ludicrous, absurd, fictional and offensive toy word ‘bangikulu’ from our banknotes now. It is not too late to change. You don’t have to invent anything new. Please don’t follow PanSALB in its latest fad. Just use the term you have always been using — banginkulu.
To inscribe such linguistic violence as the insertion of the bizarre “bangikulu” on to something that is as unavoidable, as ubiquitous and as important as banknotes, is to reduce a section of South Africans to third-class citizens at every key moment of their lives. DM