Some reflections on learning isiZulu

It didn’t go as fast as I hoped and planned for, and certainly slower than all the other languages I learned over the years. While it is true that learning one indo-European language after another is ‘easier’ because some words and grammar rules are quite similar within each branch, and there aren’t many words in common with isiZulu (in the Nguni language group), that is not the reason why it’s going slower.

The main reason is the lack of (adult) education opportunities and the learning material. There was one course offered, which I attended, but it was cancelled after 6 weeks due to a dwindling number of participants (from 6 down to 2), and despite checking the classifieds regularly, there are no ‘isiZulu tutoring’ offers (there are for maths and other subjects) and I’m told there is a shortage of isiZulu teachers even on primary and secondary schools. So this left me the options of self-study and the get-a-boyfriend one.

A consequence of the “English is the language of business” agreement for post-Apartheid South Africa is that now most South Africans learn and can speak English (yeah, what the Afrikaners couldn’t achieve by some awful law back in 1976 [that Afrikaans be the medium of instruction at all schools and everyone thus learns to speak Afrikaans], the English language mother/native tongue/home language speakers achieved by other means). So the get-a-boyfriend option doesn’t really work for learning the language, at least not to the same extent as in other countries.

I will focus on the self-study and learning material in the remainder of this post. Now, I am fairly disciplined in study habits, but as my fellow researchers can attest, being an academic is more than a 9-5 job, and conference paper deadlines, attending conferences, and additional teaching duties get in the way of keeping up with it. Perhaps some consider this a lame excuse, but the following one holds generally: one easily can get the pronunciation wrong if not corrected by a mother tongue speaker (some accent is always better than a distorted pronunciation), the lack of practice in conversation, the absence of inside knowledge to which of the newspapers to buy to decipher (i.e., which one has simplistic sentences vs. high-brow complicated sentences and larger vocabulary), and so on.

And then, the textbooks! I had bought one on the internet while still in Italy, as preparation before moving to South Africa: Teach yourself Zulu, which I wasn’t quite happy with, and, in hindsight, perhaps I could have guessed that, because I didn’t like the ‘Italian for English speakers’ either when I bought that one when I first went to Italy in 2004. Trying two others from here, it just got worse. I think the main problem is the lack of structure, as they are all terribly disorganized when it comes to grammar. I’m probably experiencing the same emotions as Carsten Graebler (a German exchange student who developed an online dictionary and a grammar cheat sheet because there was none and he needed one in his attempts to learn isiZulu).

Let me give an example. When personal pronouns come into play, it gives a list of examples in the ‘order’ of I, he, they, you, she, or as I, we, you, you, that have so-called “concords” with the verb. Anywhere else, the latter is called with its proper linguistic term conjugation, and in the order of I, you[singular], he/she/it, we, you[plural], they, with a corresponding list how to conjugate the verb. In roman languages, they are at the end of the stem, in isiZulu, at the start, so we have ngi-, u-, u-, si-, ni-, ba-; e.g.: ngithanda = I like, sifunda = we study and so on. They are just lists one has to memorize for the pronouns and nouns. Then, like in the roman languages, because the verb in the sentence already indicates who or what it is about, one can drop the subject (personal pronoun/thing) in the sentence. With a language that doesn’t have such heavy conjugations, you have to include it. (As an aside: the conjugation maps to the subject, not subject+pronoun, so, teachers, don’t include the latter nonsense in the textbooks and don’t teach Zulus a ‘translating the isiZulu’ in the ‘sort of English but the wrong way’ (and then spit on them for using it the wrong way)! I cannot recollect any of the Italians or Spanish make the same mistake when they speak in English, so that’s really due to bad teaching here.)

And, please, make an index of the grammar rules. Now, when I want to check how again, e.g., future tense is, I have to browse through the book, where the grammar is presented piecemeal in a fairly random come-along way that suits the mini-conversations of the chapter’s topic rather than a whole rule together in one place.

There are two related hypotheses about the lack of structure, like I’ve seen also in the English ‘teach yourself Italian’ textbook. One: it is due to the relatively simple grammar of English compared to the complex grammar of multiple other languages, so if one knows only English, it is harder to handle structure, glean from others ways how to structure things, or even think about looking for structure in another natural language. Two, with a grammatically simpler language, the onus is on the receiver of the message to decode the message in a way that is hopefully what the sender intended, whereas with grammatically richer languages, the onus is on the sender to encode correctly what s/he wants to say so that the receiver can understand precisely what the sender really meant. Like having more and less expressive ontology languages (e.g., using OWL 2 DL and SKOS, respectively), where the former allows the modeler to be more precise and the latter retains lots of ambiguity that easily can be misinterpreted by another modeler or software application. I don’t know whether anyone investigated this for natural languages, and to what extent that has an effect on conducting a conversation and learning and teaching a language.

Then there are the topics. In one isiZulu textbook, the topic of the first chapter is greetings, the second is on giving short commands (wait, listen, come here, do it, fill up, make tea!). Or a course structured so as to “teach you isiZulu so that you can instruct your domestic and gardener what to do”: no, I want to use it in everyday life and work (I don’t have a domestic, and not even a garden), like congratulating someone on his birthday, understand when they ask me where the registration office is and answer it, ask for the AV key to use the data projector in the lecture hall, and even better would be to be able to explain some computer science in isiZulu and give a compliment for a test well done. The Teach yourself Zulu textbook is at least somewhat better in this regard, as it handles early on also topics like celebrations, going to the supermarket and buying food, going for a drink, and asking someone for something instead of instructing the worker.

Last, I want to learn isiZulu, the language, not be indoctrinated in racist crap that “isiZulu is a new language; it only became one in 1905, when the colonists an missionaries started to write it down…before that, there were only many mutually incomprehensible dialects but no language…really, Afrikaans was a language before isiZulu” and that “yes, that’s what they [the Zulus] have, short little stories; they don’t have comprehensive histories like we have in the West”, to quote but two. And not to have illustrated the use of iyi– only with indoda iyisela (the man is a thief), whereas it just as well could have been illustrated with, if I understand the unexplained rule correctly, indoda iyinono (the man is a careful/tidy person).

So, overall, I haven’t managed to go beyond the very basics. Each university I’ve been before UKZN had a language centre, where students and employees could sign up for evening courses in multiple languages. It would help to have that here, too. Or the civic centre or community school/college could organize such courses. True, there’s a shortage of teachers, but there’s also a 29% unemployment rate in the country—surely some of them are capable of becoming isiZulu teachers. And teachers and teaching material could upgrade themselves with the latest tools (like the isiZulu spell checker, online dictionaries and conjugator), update the textbooks material to make it suitable for the 21st century, and add some decent grammar compendium. In the meantime, I probably have to contend myself with flicking through the material trying to remember it all and with entertaining myself with some curiosities in the dictionaries.


Part-whole relations, mereotopology and the OntoPartS tool

Part-whole relations are considered essential in knowledge representation and reasoning and, more practically, in ontology development and conceptual data modelling, especially in the subject domains of biology, medicine, geographic information systems, and manufacturing. In contrast to Ontology that sticks to one type of part-of, the modellers and subject domain experts have come up with a plethora of part-whole relations, some of which are considered real parthood relations and others only meronymic (or: due to imprecise natural language use). For instance, the Foundational Model of Anatomy has 8 basic locative part-whole relations [1], GALEN has come up with 26 part-whole relations [2], and in cognitive science and conceptual data modelling, it hovers around about 6 types [3,4]. They have been structured in a taxonomy of part-whole relations that makes a distinction between mereology and meronomy, transitivity and in- or non-transitivity, and the domain and range of the relationship [5], and some initial usage guidelines were proposed in [6].

But that’s not enough for the complex subject domains and demands on the representation and reasoning over the ontologies. This holds in particular when one has to represent that some things are contained in or located in something else. For instance, the way how Paris and France relate is somehow different from how the euro coin in your wallet relate to each other—the latter being an example of  (spatial) containment, but not structural part of—whereas in other case, the spatial containment of regions of space and the structural parthood of the objects occupying those regions do coincide, e.g., your heart in your body. Or consider representing that Alto Adige/Südtirol is a border province of Italy (bordering Austria), where we have to handle both the notion of administrative entities and connecting geographical regions. That is, handling regions and ‘things’ that occupy those regions (mereotopology).

Being more precise about how the things relate provides nice inferences. Take, e.g., NTPLI as ‘non-tangential proper located in’—a part is located in the whole but not at the boundary of it—and EnclosedCountry \equiv Country \sqcap \exists NTPLI.Country , with the following instances in our knowledge base NTPLI(Lesotho, South Africa) , Country(Lesotho) , and Country(South Africa) , then it deduces correctly that EnclosedCountry(Lesotho) , whereas with a mere ‘part-of’, we would not have been able to obtain this result.

Besides these examples, there are actual system requirements for, among others, annotating and querying multimedia documents and cartographic maps, such as annotating a photo of a beach where the area of the photo that depicts the sand touches the area that depicts the seawater so that, together with the knowledge that Varadero is a tangential proper part of Cuba, the semantically enhanced system can infer possible locations where the photo has been taken, or, vv., it can propose that the photo may depict a beach scene.

But how to cater for such things?

Let me summarise the three main basic problems that have to be resolved first:

  1. There is lack of oversight on plethora of part-whole relations, that include real parthood (mereology) parts with their locations (mereotopology), and other part-whole relations (from meronymy);
  2. The challenge to figure out which one to use when;
  3. The underspecified representation and reasoning consequences when one has to put up with less expressive languages for which technological infrastructure exists.

We propose to solve that in the following way, which is described in detail in [7] that recently got accepted at the 9th Extended Semantic Web Conference (ESWC’12).

The short answer for the reader who is not interested in all the theory, design, and evaluation, but just wants to model quickly: the OntoPartS tool guides you to choose the most appropriate relation and saves the selection into your OWL file.

Now for a slightly longer answer. First, we extend the taxonomy of part-whole relations of [5] with the novel addition of a taxonomy of formally defined mereotopological relations, which is driven by the KGEMT mereotoplogical theory of Varzi [8], resulting in a taxonomy of 23 part-whole relations—mereological, mereotopological, and meronymic ones—therewith ensuring a solid ontological and logic-based foundation.

Second, some things have to be simplified from the KGEMT theory to make it implementable in OWL, and we describe the design rationale and trade-offs so that OntoPartS can load OWL/OWL2-formalised ontologies, and, if desired, modify the OWL file with the chosen relation. Which OWL species is best suited obviously depends on your individual requirements, but from a representation & reasoning and mereotopology viewpoint, OWL 2 DL and OWL 2 RL seem to fit better than the other ones. (Note: there are papers on DL and representing spatial relations and on DL and parthood, and alternative representation choices are discussed in the paper, yet, as far as we are aware of, none deals with mereotopological relations in OWL or, more generally, in DL.)

Third, there is the ‘how to select’ from the 23 relations. To enable a quick selection of the appropriate relation, we avail of a simplified OWL-ized DOLCE ontology—well, just the taxonomy of categories—for the domain and range restrictions imposed on the part-whole relations and with that, we can let the user take shortcuts compared to a lengthy decision procedure. In this way, we reduced the selection procedure to 0-4 options based on just 2-3 inputs. All of this has been structured neatly in implementation-independent activity diagrams, and subsequently has been implemented; see also the demos, the tool, and the OWL version of the taxonomy of the 23 relations.

Last, we have tested OntoPartS with modellers in controlled experiments and it was shown to improve efficiency and accuracy in modeling of part-whole relations.

As mentioned, further details can be found in [7], Representing mereotopological relations in OWL ontologies with OntoPartS, which I co-authored with Francis Fernández-Reyes, with the Instituto Superior Politécnico “José Antonio Echeverría” (CUJAE), and Annette Morales-González, with the Advanced Technologies Application Center (CENATAV), both located in Cuba (the example on semantic annotation of multimedia with spatial relations comes straight from the image processing research being done at CENATAV). A tidbit of non-scientific information: the first version of the OntoPartS tool was developed as part of the mini-project that Francis, Annette (and Alexis, who is into fish fulltime now) had chosen to carry out for the ontology engineering course I taught at the University of Havana in 2010 (mentioned earlier here and here). For the paper, we added some more theory, minor refinements to the tool, and a user evaluation with several CUJAE and UKZN students and a few FUB colleagues (thanks again for their cooperation and interest). We’ve started work on additional features, so if you have any particular request, drop me a line.


  1. Mejino, J.L.V., Agoncillo, A.V., Rickard, K.L., Rosse, C.: Representing complexity in part-whole relationships within the foundational model of anatomy. In: Proc. of the AMIA Fall Symposium. pp. 450–454 (2003)
  2. up to
  3. Winston, M., Chaffin, R., Herrmann, D.: A taxonomy of part-whole relations. Cognitive Science 11(4), 417–444 (1987)
  4. Odell, J.: Advanced Object-Oriented Analysis & Design using UML. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1998)
  5. Keet, C.M., Artale, A.: Representing and reasoning over a taxonomy of part-whole relations. Applied Ontology 3(1-2), 91–110 (2008)
  6. Keet, C.M.: Part-whole relations in object-role models. In: Proc. of ORM’06, OTM Workshops 2006. LNCS, vol. 4278, pp. 1116–1127. Springer (2006)
  7. Keet, C.M., Fernández Reyes, F.C., Morales-González, A.: Representing mereotopological relations in OWL ontologies with OntoPartS. In Simperl, et al., eds.: Proc. of ESWC’12. LNCS, Springer (2012) 27-31 May 2012, Heraklion, Greece.
  8. Varzi, A.: Handbook of Spatial Logics, chap. Spatial reasoning and ontology: parts, wholes, and locations, pp. 945–1038. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer Verlag (2007)