A Q&A with local multilinguist and lyricist Pule Welch

"Distinctions between languages are political. They're about power, not about grammar"

19 February 2019 - 13:53 By Carla Lever
Pule Welch - linguist, lyricist, lekker oke.
Pule Welch - linguist, lyricist, lekker oke.
Image: Supplied

Many people know you as a comedian and TV personality, but let's talk today about you being a linguist! What is a linguist and how did you become one?

A linguist is a scientist of language, describing aspects of its structure and function. I actually developed an interest in the field through hip-hop, as an MC with a crew from Ndofaya called Third Wave. We were young drum technicians of slang on the Splash Jam circuit in Soweto, and writing raps requires a strong concept of rhythm in language. This led me to study phonology, a discipline of linguistics which deals with how speech sounds are structured. Because the rhythmic patterns of siNtu languages, are different to those of English, fitting them to hip-hop rhythms requires researching different strategies for rhythmic creativity.

You've said that instead of saying how many languages you speak, you prefer to talk of how much language you speak. Why is that? 

I say that because what is a language? Distinctions between languages are political. They're about power, not about grammar. When you are counting languages (how many do you know?), you are actually counting things like sociopolitical identities or positions. If you were really counting language, you would be looking at all the possible features that exist (how much is possible?), which, is in fact what a linguist does.

Can you tell us a little about your Master's research at UCT?

Eish, bona, ngeke ngik'shayashaye lapho: beng'fun' ukuba ntswembu ngok'repha nje straight. That project actually came when I was searching for ways to end an is'Zulu rap phrase on an accented syllable to land on the second beat in the bar with the snare hit! There’s a style of backwards speech which reverses syllables, used as a secret language emakasana, for example in Meadowlands where we were. This was exciting to me as a way to break the rhythmic pattern in the language – I could use it in raps. Later, it became the basis of my research. It’s a global phenomenon, and the local types I study trace back beyond the Kofifi era, perhaps as far as the days of Nongoloza, around the 1890s.

You're particularly active in promoting indigenous writing systems, especially the local Ditema/Isibheqe alphabet which is based on traditional beadwork and geometric symbols. A third of the world's writing systems are endangered: why does it matter to preserve and celebrate our communication diversity?

We use and promote the Ditema tsa Dinoko or IsiBheqe system because it is an alternative literacy grounded in local tradition and not imported through colonialism like the Latin alphabet is. The Latin alphabet is efficient for some forms of language, but not others. It’s not ideal for representing siNtu language words which is the majority of language in this country. The real benefit of indigenous knowledge systems like these is that they are resources for reshaping society in ways that might suit people better, and of which there can be a greater sense of ownership. For example, an alternative writing system as a real additional literacy engages the possibility of recentralising education systems outside schools and universities – which are Western-style institutions – towards community driven education practices informed by marginalised and suppressed African knowledge.

You're very involved in bringing to light indigenous heritage through buried names and origin stories that enrich our experience of and interaction with our cities and landscape. In what ways do you do that?

Ngikhulel' emJibha mara nginok'spana la eKapa. Those involved in Khoekhoe and Saake reclamation decided to rework public signage outdoors around ǁHuiǃgaeb (CPT). We replace Dutch spellings of Khoekhoe place names, so "Hoerikwaggo" became Huriǂoaxa and "Lion's Head" was instead written Xammi Mû!'ab. Original narratives of |Xam-ka !ke interpret the space better than Western modes. In fact, you can read a story where it's hinted at here, about the recent veld fires: https://www.africanstorybook.org/index.php?id=32179

Can you give us an example of a moment where language opened doors for you or led to a surprising interaction?

I was lucky to work as an actor touring a play about South African history around the continent. The cast included myself and Lindiwe Matshikiza. We made the challenge for ourselves that, in each of the 16 countries we visited, we would try to translate and perform some of the text in local languages of the place. Anyway, when we were in Lubumbashi we played for young high school students. It was during a school day, so they were naturally restless and we expected to have to work hard to keep their attention. But the room erupted not five minutes into the show, when we got to the part translated into TshiLuba, which ended with the words: bankambwa betu. It must have come as a surprise when these South Africans, who only arrived the day beforesaid something like that out of the blue in a language not commonly learned by any foreigners, and with a good accent (we always tried to get it perfect in each place). We didn't need to worry about keeping their attention after that!

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit: www.nalibali.org.