by Piet Coetzer

The Zulu in my dictionary

Documenting the origins of South Africanisms

The Zulu in my Dictionary

While negotiating with someone about the price of something the other day, the expression “he wants everything pasella and for mahala" came to mind. It led to the discovery that, although our indigenous languages have had a tremendous impact on South African English as a spoken language, these words are sadly lacking in our dictionaries.

While I did find pasella in some, including the of Oxford Dictionary South African English and in most Afrikaans dictionaries with explanations about its origins, the word mahala is, sadly, mostly absent.
Pasella, meaning a gift or gratuity, comes from the Nguni family of languages from words like bansela (to give), bensa (to be kind). Then there is the Zulu word ukubansela (to give a present, token or gratuity), and in Xhosa words like iphasela and amaphasela, which refers to a parcel).
For mahala, we are only informed that it is part of South African slang, meaning for free or for nothing and gratis, without any explanation. One source claims that it is a derivative from Zulu, without offering a possible root word from that language.
We do, however, learn that the word also exists in the Balkans, spelt exactly the same and meaning a neighbourhood, quarter or a section of a rural or urban settlement, dating back to the Ottoman Empire.
If you are an American to whom a baby girl is born, you might call her Mahala, which, with its variant Mahalia, means “woman” in the native American Indian tongue.
You would be hard pressed to find a South African who does not know the word chaila or tjaila in Afrikaans and who does not know that it means to retire or “knock off”, as in “it is time to stop working”?  However, it represents one of the starkest examples of how the indigenous heritage of our spoken languages cries out for some proper study.
Apart from brief explanations about its meaning,  the only explanation of its origin is to be found on the website Zikkir. It only tells us that it is "one of many ‘Bantu’ words which have been adapted for use in both Afrikaans and South African English”.
Many moons ago, as a student working holidays at Iscor as a machine operator to help pay for my studies, I had some exposure to that uniquely South African “rainbow” language called Fanagalo. Created in the interaction between migrant workers from traditional areas and urban dwellers, it richly contributed to our nation’s language heritage and deserves closer study and promotion.
Many of the Zulu words in our dictionaries have not only become embedded in South Africa's daily spoken lexicon but can also be found internationally in standard English, to the extent that some of them are not even underlined in red by computer spell checks anymore . These include words like:
*Muti (from umuthi for medicine);
*Indaba, for conferences or deliberations and meaning a news item in Zulu;
*Induna for a leader or elder;
*Donga for a ditch (mostly due to erosion) from the Zulu word udonga, which ironically means awall;
*Shongololo from ishongololo for a worm; and
*Hamba, for go or leave, and depending on tone of voice also  means get lost!;
*Ubuntu for goodwill and compassion or humanity.
Then it is also natural that there is a rich contribution to the names of animals / game on our continent from indigenous words, such as impala and mamba.
Until next time, hamba kahle -- go well.
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