Letter from a Xhosa-speaking PhD student – (Xhosa in Science published in Science Forum 2019)
Nothing in English or Afrikaans is science-centric. So, why all the fuss about Xhosa?
Science is not English or Afrikaans; it is knowledge that is founded on searches that can be proven, knowledge that that which is being described is as it is being described.
It has now been a few years of us living under the impression that black languages are not fit to be used in the sciences. There are many theories that supporters of this ideology use. For example, they say that these [black] languages neither have the basic vocabulary nor words for scientific terms. In so doing, they are hammering home already existing misconceptions that the only preferable languages for the sciences are English and Afrikaans. Those in authority do not even bother to unpack the manner in which English and Afrikaans came to be languages of the sciences, as if they were created for that purpose.
Science is not English or Afrikaans; it is knowledge that is founded on searches that can be proven, knowledge that that which is being described is as it is being described. Knowledge has nothing to do with language; if you know something you know it, regardless of which language you used to know it. Language in science is a tool similar to any other tool, like a beaker or cube in the laboratory. A beaker and a cube are not science, they are laboratory equipment, much as English and Afrikaans are, too. That said, there is nothing that is not science, yet the first thing that comes to people’s minds is physical science and mathematics. One gets it, if they actually even do get it, that everything has its science and mathematics. Mathematics is everywhere; we live it walking, standing, driving cars, and so on. The same applies to science. It depends on which science we are referring to at a particular time. This, therefore, means that science and mathematics are available in every language. It is simply the person who chooses which language they prefer to use for mathematics and science.
Most people believe that certain contraceptive measures that are done via medicine of plant origin are actually science. Yes, such remedies can be said to be the growth of the sciences, if said contraceptives are remedied as they should be nowadays. This does not, however, mean that this science of contraception came with the existing medicinal ways of prevention. This way of prevention [contraception] came about after many years of prevention in the past. Young men and girls would indulge in sexual intercourse, without contraception, but girls would not get pregnant; neither would men impregnate girls. These days, we have problems such as premature babies, something that did not exist in the past. For people not to get pregnant these days, they have to use these existing medicinal contraceptives. Yet, in the past there were also other ways of contraception, like that of delaying the periods for girls as well as sperm formation in boys by simply paying attention to their diet or what they eat. This would delay the periods and maturity of girls and boys until they were old enough to live as men and women together and conceive a child. Knowledge like that is science.
We lived through cattle and tilling the land. Knowing the correct times to till the land as well as the correct seed for that particular soil is science. Knowing that the soil, at times, needs to be assisted with manure and ash is also science. Even knowing that manure and ash have something that assists the soil in becoming more fertile, is a science. Knowing when certain plants will be ready and knowing when it should be planted based on estimates on when it can be harvested – that is mathematics. Knowing the right time to sheer sheep is science. Ways of preserving food by drying it and knowing for how long we can leave it to dry and still be edible after a certain amount of time is science and mathematics. A person would easily know the numbers of his cattle without having had gone to study how to count at school. That was mathematics.
In all these various types of science and mathematics I highlighted above, Xhosa was used by the Xhosas for it, and other nations used their own languages for it. There was never a lack or hindrance due to lack of English and Afrikaans. Those languages were not known at all back then. Therefore, science and mathematics exist in every single language. For us to be studying these in English and Afrikaans is the will of government. The English government taught in English during its times, the Afrikaans government brought in Afrikaans once they came to power. Now, with the existing government today, there should be a push to use [black] people’s languages. The government chooses the language for science as well as governance, not that the other languages cannot be used. It is a choice.
Once the Afrikaners took over from the English, they made a concerted effort at translating existing official forms, documents and books. They even started to write in different genres of Afrikaans, thus making Afrikaans an official language for reading and studying. Nothing else was done, and as such this can be done by any other nation with any language. What is needed is government support to ensure that we can translate into Xhosa any documents and books needed in education. And that must be followed by Xhosas writing in Xhosa in these various fields. This is the only thing that needs to be done to ensure that Xhosa can be used as a language to read and study with, even in economics broadly, so that we can get over these misconceptions that the language cannot be used for such fields.
There are already pioneers that are writing about languages and the sciences. They are writing in Xhosa. We have graduates at Masters level who have written their dissertations in Xhosa. In 2017, we saw the very first graduate who had written his PhD doctorate in Xhosa at Rhodes University. And even in 2018, we got another PhD doctorate, written in Xhosa, from the University of Fort Hare. I am also currently reading towards my PhD at the University of the Western Cape, in Xhosa. Such endeavours clearly show that the mist is clearing from the eyes of Xhosas and they are beginning to trust their language as a language of economics broadly. If all of these endeavours emerge from Xhosas themselves, without state assistance, then this is even more encouraging. What is desirable, above what we see now, is for other vocations to start publishing their work – in their respective fields – using Xhosa; so that we can see Xhosa Physicists writing Physics research papers in Xhosa!
Another thing that must be acknowledged is that the vocabulary of science and mathematics is not majority-based in English. It is a combination of languages from which these various sciences emerge. Science and mathematics are named in the languages in which they originated from, not English, and those words are used as they are in other languages as well. That is why you cannot find science terms in most ordinary dictionaries; you will find them in science dictionaries. Xhosa, therefore, like any other language, is a language of the sciences.
Yours in languages,