English, Englishes – which one to use for writing?

Sometimes, the answer to the question in the post’s title is easy, if you’re writing in English: do whatever the style guide says. Don’t argue with the journal editor or typesetter about that sort of trivia (unless they’re very wrong). If it states American English spelling, do so; if British English, go for that. If you can’t distinguish your color from colour, modeling from modelling, and a faucet from a tap, use a spellchecker with one of the Englishes on offer—even OpenOffice Writer shows red wavy lines under ‘color’, ‘modeling’, and ‘faucet’ when it’s set to my default “English (South Africa)”. There are very many other places where you can write in English as much as you like or have time for, however, and then the blog post’s question becomes more relevant. How many Englishes or somehow accepted recognised variants of English exist, and where does it make a difference in writing such that you’ll have to, or are supposed to, choose?

It begs the question of how many variants of English count as one of the Englishes, which is tricky to answer, because it depends on what counts. Does a dialect count? Does it count when it’s sanctioned by a country when it has an official language status and a language body? Does it count when there are enough users? Or when there’s enough text to detect the substantive differences? What are the minimum number or type of differences, if any, and from which standard, before one may start to talk of different Englishes and a new spin-off X-English? People have been deliberating about such matters and trying to document differences and even have come up with classification schemes. Englishes around the world, to be more precise, refer to localised or indigenised versions of English that are either those people’s first or institutionalised language, not just any variant or dialect. There’s an International Association for World Englishes (IAWE) and there are handbooks, textbooks, and scientific journals about it, and the 25th conference of the IAWE will take place next year.

In recent years there have been suggestions that English could break up into mutually unintelligible languages, much as Latin once did. Could such a break-up occur, or are we in need of a new appreciation of the nature of World English?

Tom McArtrur, 1987, writing from “the mother country”, but not “the centre of gravity”, of English (pdf).

My expertise doesn’t go that far – I’m operating from the consumer-side of these matters, standards-following, and trying to not make too many mistakes. It took me a while to figure out there was British English (BE) and American English (AE) and then it was a matter of looking up rules on spelling differences, like -ise vs. -ize and single vs. double l (e.g., traveling vs. travelling), checking comparative word lists, and other varied differences, like whether it’s ‘towards’ or ‘toward’ or 15:30, 15.30, 3.30pm or 3:30pm (or one of my colleagues p’s, like a 3.30p). Not to mention a plethora of online writing guides and the comprehensive sense of style book by Steven Pinker. Let’s explore the Englishes and Global English a little.

McArthur’s Englishes (source)

South African English (SAE) exists as one of the recognised Englishes, all the way into internationally reputable dictionaries. It is a bit of a mix of BE and AE, with some spices sprinkled into it. It tries to follow BE but there are AE influences due to the media and, perhaps, anti-colonial sentiment. It’s soccer, not football, for instance, and the 3.30pm variant rather than a 24h clock. Well, I’m not sure it is officially, but practically it is so. It also has ‘weird’ words that everyone is convinced is native English of the BE variety, but isn’t, like timeously rather than timeous or timely – the most I could find was a Wiktionary entry on it claiming it to be Scottish and SAE, but not even the Dictionary of SAE (DSAE) has an entry for it. I’ve seen it so often in work emails over the years that I caved in and use it as well. There are at least a handful of SAE words that people in South Africa think is BE but isn’t, as any SA expat will be able to recall when they get quizzical looks overseas. Then there are hundreds of words that people know is SAE at least unofficially, which are mainly the loan words and adopted words from the 10 other languages spoken in SA – regional overlap causes mutual language influences in all directions. Bakkie, indaba, veld, lekker, dagga, and many more – I’ve blogged about that before. My OpenOffice SAE spellchecker doesn’t flag any of these words as typos.

Arguably, also grammatical differences for SAE exist. In practice they sure do, but I’m not aware of anything officially endorsed. There is no ‘benevolent language dictator’ with card-carrying members of the lexicography and grammar police to endorse or reprimand. Indeed there is the Pan-South African Language Board (PANSALB), but its teeth and thunder don’t come close to the likes of the Académie Française or Real Academia Española. Regarding grammar, that previous post already mentioned the case of the preposition at the end of a sentence when it’s a separable part of the verb in Afrikaans, Dutch, and German (e.g., meenemen or mitnehmen ‘take with’). A concoction that still makes me wince each time I hear or read it, is the ‘can be able to’. It’s either can + verb what you can, or copula + able to + verb what you can do. It is, e.g., ‘I can carry out the experiment’ or ‘I’m able to carry out the experiment’, but not ‘I can be able to carry out the experiment’. I suspect it carries over from a verb form in Niger-Congo B languages since I’ve heard it used also by at least Tanzanians, Kenyans, and Malawians, and meanwhile I’ve occasionally seen it also in texts written by English South African students.

If the notion of “Englishes” feels uncomfortable, then what about Global/World/International English? Is there one? For many a paper I review double-blind, i.e., where the author names and affiliations are hidden, I can’t tell unless the English is really bad. I’ve read enough to be able to spot Spanglish or Chinglish, but mostly I can’t tell, in that there’s a sort of bland scientific English – be it a pidgin English, or maybe multiple authors cancel out ways of making mistakes, or no-one really bothers tear the vocabulary apart into their boxes because it’s secondary to the scientific content being communicated. No doubt that investigative deliberations are ongoing about that too; if there aren’t, they ought to.

Another scenario for ‘global English’, concerns how to write a newsletter to a global audience. For instance, if you were to visit a website with an intended audience in the USA, then it should tolerable to read “this fall”, even though elsewhere it’s either autumn, spring, a rainy or a dry season. If it’s an article by the UN, say, then one may expect a different wording that is either not US-centric or, if the season matters, to qualify it like in a “Covid-19 cases are expected to rise during fall and winter in North America”. With the former wording, you can’t please everyone, due to different calendars with different month names and year ends and different seasons. The question also came up recently for a Wikimedia blog post that I was involved sideways in a draft version, on Abstract Wikipedia progress for its natural language generation component. My tendency was toward(s) a Global English, whereas one of my collaborators’ stance was that they assumed a rule that it should be the English of wherever the organisation’s headquarters is located. These choices were also confusing when I was writing the first draft of my memoir: it was published by a South African publisher, hence, SAE style guidelines, but the book is also distributed – and read! – internationally.

Without clear rules, there will always be people who complain about your English, be it either that you’re wrong or just not in the inner circle for sensing ‘the feeling of the language that only a native speaker can have’, that supposedly inherently unattainable fingerspitzengefühl for it. No clear rules isn’t good for developing spelling and grammar checkers either. In that regard, and that one only, perhaps I just might prefer a benevolent dictator. I don’t even care which of the Englishes (except for not the stupid stuff like spelling ‘light’ as ‘lite’, ffs). I also fancy the idea of banding together with other ‘nonfirst-language’ speakers of English to start devising and dictating rules, since the English speakers can’t seem to sort out their own language – at least not enough like the grammatically richer languages – and we’re in the overwhelming majority in numbers (about 1:3 apparently). One can dream.

As to the question in the title of the blog post: what I’ve written so far is not a clear answer for all cases, indeed, in particular when there is no editorial house style dictating it, but this lifting of the veil hopefully has made clear that attempting to answer the question means opening up that can of worms further. You could create your own style guide for your not-editor-policed writings. The more I read about it, though, the more complicated things turn out to be, so you’re warned in case you’d like to delve into this topic. Meanwhile, I’ll keep winging it on my blog with some version of a ‘global English’ and inadvertent typos and grammar missteps…


The isiZulu spellchecker seems to contribute to ‘intellectualisation’ of isiZulu

Perhaps putting ‘intellectualisation’ in sneer quotes isn’t nice, but I still find it an odd term to refer to a process of (in short, from [1]) coming up with new vocabulary for scientific speech, expression, objective thinking, and logical judgments in a natural language. In the country I grew up, terms in our language were, and still are, invented more because of a push against cultural imperialism and for home language promotion rather than some explicit process to intellectualise the language in the sense of “let’s invent some terms because we need to talk about science in our own language” or “the language needs to grow up” sort of discourses. For instance, having introduced the beautiful word geheugensanering (NL) that captures the concept of ‘garbage collection’ (in computing) way better than the English joke-term for it, elektronische Datenverarbeitung (DE) for ‘ICT’, técnicas de barrido (ES) for ‘sweep line’ algorithms, and mot-dièse (FR) for [twitter] ‘hashtag’, to name but a few inventions.

Be that as it may, here in South Africa, it goes under the banner of intellectualisation, with particular reference to the indigenous languages [2]; e.g., having introduced umakhalekhukhwini ‘cell/mobile phone’ (decomposed: ‘the thing that rings in your pocket’) and ukudlulisa ikheli for ‘pass by reference’ in programming (longer list of isiZulu-English computing and ICT terms), which is occurring for multiple subject domains [3]. Now I ended up as co-author of a paper that has ‘intellectualisation’ in its title [4]: Evaluation of the effects of a spellchecker on the intellectualization of isiZulu that appeared just this week in the Alternation journal.

The main general question we sought to answer was whether human language technologies, and in particular the isiZulu spellchecker launched last year, contribute to the language’s intellectualisation. More specifically, we aimed to answer the following three questions:

  1. Is the spellchecker meeting end-user needs and expectations?
  2. Is the spellchecker enabling the intellectualisation of the language?
  3. Is the lexicon growing upon using the spellchecker?

The answers in a nutshell are: 1) yes, the spellchecker does meet end-user needs and expectations (but there are suggestions further improving its functionality), 2) users perceive that the spellchecker enables the intellectualisation of the language, and 3) non-dictionary words were added, i.e., the lexicon is indeed growing.

The answer to the last question provides some interesting data for linguists to bite their teeth in. For instance, a user had added to the spellchecker’s dictionary LikaSekelaShansela, which is an inflected form of isekelashansela ‘Vice Chancellor’ (that is recognised as correct by the spellchecker). Also some inconsistencies—from a rule-of-thumb viewpoint—in word formation were observed; e.g., usosayensi ‘scientist’ vs. unompilo ‘nurse’. If one were to follow consistently the word formation process for various types of experts in isiZulu, such as usosayensi ‘scientist’, usolwazi ‘professor’, and usomahlaya ‘comedian’, then one reasonably could expect ‘nurse’ to be *usompilo rather than unompilo. Why it isn’t, we don’t know. Regardless, the “add to dictionary” option of the spellchecker proved to be a nice extra feature for a data-driven approach to investigate intellectualisation of a language.

Version 1 of the isiZulu spellchecker that was used in the evaluation was ok and reasonably could not have interfered negatively with any possible intellectualisation (average SUS score of 75 and median 82.5, so ‘good’). It was ok in the sense that a majority of respondents thought that the entire tool was helpful, no features should be removed, it enhances their work, and so on (see paper for details). For the software developers among you who have spare time: they’d like, mainly, to have it as a Chrome and MS Word plugin, predictive text/autocomplete, and have it working on the mobile phone. The spellchecker has improved in the meantime thanks to two honours students, and I will write another blog post about that next.

As a final reflection: it turned out there isn’t a way to measure the level of intellectualisation in a ‘hard sciences’ way, so we concluded the other answers based on data that came from the somewhat fluffy approach of a survey and in-depth interviews (a ‘mixed-methods’ approach, to give it a name). It would be nice to have a way to measure it, though, so one would be able to say which languages are more or less intellectualised, what level of intellectualisation is needed to have a language as language of instruction and science at tertiary level of education and for dissemination of scientific knowledge, and to what extent some policy x, tool y, or activity z contributes to the intellectualization of a language.



[1] Havránek, B. 1932. The functions of literary language and its cultivation. In Havránek, B and Weingart, M. (Eds.). A Prague School Reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure and Style. Prague: Melantrich: 32-84.

[2] Finlayson, R, Madiba, M. The intellectualization of the indigenous languages of South Africa: Challenges and prospects. Current Issues in Language Planning, 2002, 3(1): 40-61.

[3]Khumalo, L. Intellectualization through terminology development. Lexikos, 2017, 27: 252-264.

[4] Keet, C.M., Khumalo, L. Evaluation of the effects of a spellchecker on the intellectualization of isiZulu. Alternation, 2017, 24(2): 75-97.

A few notes and tips for forming new words

Recently, the COMMUTERM project was accepted, where we will use crowdsourcing to develop an isiZulu terminology for, first, computer science, and then in another discipline to test genericity of the approach and the tools. One of the components is that new words will have to be invented: while there are isiZulu words for the computer mouse (igundane), there is none so far for, say, ‘computational complexity of an algorithm’, or even ‘algorithm’ (though there’s a tentative candidate for the latter).

So, how would you go about inventing them? In a conversation about that and a less daunting example, the spreadsheet ‘table’, I asked whether the isiZulu word for table—itafula—could be reused. The answer was not just a “no”—a physical table is a very different kind of thing so you can’t use the same word[1], and likewise in several other languages—, but with the addition in a tone of embarrassment that there weren’t that many isiZulu words and “even itafula originates from Afrikaans”. I countered that loan words, modification and adoption are the norm, rather than the exception, in many languages (well, at least the ones I know of), and gave a few sketchy examples.

What I hope to achieve here is to structure that somewhat with examples and ‘types’ of adoptions in an accessible way. As input I use my memory of a seminar I attended in 2006 about that very topic (the Language and Communication Technologies colloquia at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, where the computer science faculty operates in a trilingual mode) and the languages I have learned over the years. If you have better sources, I’d be grateful if you inform me about them, which, in turn, may improve the outcome of the COMMUTERM project. I will divide it into stages of adoption of a new word, and then describe and illustrate the patterns I know of that have been used to invent new ones.

Stages of adoption

There a different stages of adoption of a new word in a language, resulting from nearness to overlapping language regions and, in these day, globalization. I am not talking of intentional usage of a foreign word, such reading in an English language text “spitting chewing gum on the street is Verboten”: English has a word for verboten (‘forbidden’), but the use of the German word is intended to convey a sense of ‘really strictly forbidden’. Instead, I am considering primarily the first one of three cases: 1) language X has some word abcd whereas language Y does not have a word for the entity but wants or needs it, 2) a speaker of language X does not speak Y well, and makes a Y-ification of abcd and that somehow creeps into the language[2], 3) there is an existing word for abcd in Y, but for some reason (whichever it may be), abcd is used anyway[3].

The first stage is just plain borrowing of abcd from X by Y; for instance, guerilla (Spanish, Sp.) or polder (Dutch, Ned.) or niche (French, Fr.) in English language. Sometimes it remains at this stage, i.e., the loan word is adopted as one’s own as is, be this in the original meaning or not. Regarding latter, you might find the following example mildly entertaining. We colloquially used the word ‘floppy’ as short-hand for ‘floppy disk’ in the Netherlands, but the ‘stiffy’ of ‘stiffy disk’ never really made it—there are translations of ‘stiffy’ into Dutch, but none that fits well, and we have the metric system, so inches were not an option either. In the time of their co-existence, we had to compare them in some way nevertheless, which ended up as grote floppy [disk/diskette] (‘big floppy’) versus a kleine floppy [disk/diskette] (‘small floppy’) or a zachte floppy [disk/diskette] (‘soft floppy’) versus a harde floppy [disk/diskette] (‘hard floppy’, even in the urban dictionary). After the real floppy disk had its exit, the stiffy disk became a plain floppy (Ned., plural: floppies) used as a noun without adjective, or plain diskette (Ned.). Writing this now, it sounds like lunacy, but it made perfect sense back then and everybody understood what you meant with these terms.

The second stage is adaptation of the word, and this also may be the final stage. Adaptation leaves the word largely intact, but modifies it a little according to rules of word formation or grammar of Y. For instance, the verb ‘to browse’ is modified in Dutch with Dutch verb rules: the verb is now browsen and jij (you) browst, wij (we) browsen, etc., and the German (Ger.) Apfelstrudel is strudel di mele in Italian (It.) where Strudel is untranslatable and Apfel is mele.

The third stage, if it occurs, is complete adoption after adaptation or invention of a new word. For instance, the English (En.) ‘to educate’ has its origin in Latin (Lat.) educare, ‘democracy’ from the Greek demos kratos, and ‘cookie’ from koekje (Ned., a longer list). The direct import ‘taxi’ originates from Greek—supposedly, all words with an x in it, are from the Greek language—and contradiction in terms is a 1-to-1 translation from contradictio in terminis (Lat.). There are very many such words in English that have their origin in other languages, and there are plenty of etymological dictionaries you may like to check (e.g., word origin’s list with stories and etymonline with just a very brief note for each entry).

Different regions may for one reason or other stay in one stage or another with some word. For instance, in the USA, ‘kindergarten’ is a common term, whereas elsewhere ‘pre-school’ is used. I won’t consider all the why-this issues here, only what. What I have observed is that different cultures in countries are more or less or not at all fanatic when it comes to their vocabulary. For instance, there is the Academie Francaise who is in charge of imposing in a top-down fashion French words for otherwise loan words (e.g., the recent mot-dièse for ‘hash tag’), the Flemish are generally more inventive than the Dutch (e.g., helikopter (Ned.) vs. wentelwiek (Be.) for ‘helicopter’), and the speakers of Italian, Spanish, and German typically come up with own words. However, comparing computing terms, this is not always the case: besturingssysteem (Ned., new word) versus sistema operativo (It., direct translation).

Types of changes

This is my attempt at structuring the ways of inventing adaptations and word inventions. I did glean a bit from [1], notably that it motivated me to add the distinction between ‘there is abcd in language X, now find one in Y’ versus the totally ab initio word creation, in the sense of ‘we created this new thingy as the first thingy in the world, now name it’. Within the COMMUTERM project, we mostly face the former, although some ideas on how people in other languages deal with the latter may be of help for the former if there is no feasible translation and you have to go back to the drawing board of word creation. I’ll go through them in the following order: more or less a translation, Y-ify a noun, Y-ify a verb, and word formation.

1-to-1 translation.

Direct translation of abcd in X to an existing word in Y, i.e., in both languages the new word or reuse of an existing word for another meaning happens in the exact same way. Examples:

  • (in computing) mouse (En.) – igundane­ (Zu.) – muis (Ned.) – topo (It.)
  • (in computing) memory (En.) – geheugen (Ned.) – memoria (It.)
  • email (En.) – correo electronico (Sp.)
  • database (En.) – base de datos (Sp.)
  • ontology (En.) – ontologie (Ned., Ger.) – ontologia (It., Sp.), although, in this case, English has taken it from philosophy, which has taken it from Latin.

There are many more terms also in computer science of which you (well, just the English-speakers) may think they are English but have a root in another language and English borrowed from that or adopted it fully. To back this up, just in case you were thinking everything comes from English: check out the etymology of, e.g., data (from datum (Lat.)), algorithm (after the Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi), to compute (from Latin), printer created as noun of print (from Old French preinte, which, in turn, comes from premere (Lat.)).

Almost a 1-to-1 translation.

It looks like a 1-to-1 translation of existing words, but there is a slight semantic difference, as if a nitpicking refinement occurred in the search for a translation that possibly indicates a slight difference in underlying meaning or perhaps it was felt unavoidable because a suitable equivalent was not available in Y. Examples:

  • (in computing) operating system (En.) – Betriebssystem (Ger.), where the betriebs– is literally the ‘steering’ of the system, not the ‘operating’.
  • (in computing) keyboard (En.) – toetsenbord (Ned.), i.e., literally, the keysboard, for there are multiple keys on a keyboard, not just one.
  • (in computing) save (En.) – opslaan/bewaren (Ned.) – speichern (Ger.), which means ‘to store’ in Dutch and German, not ‘to save’.
  • (in computing) file (En.) – documento (It.).

With respect to some offline comments I received, I’ll rephrase the latter point differently (perhaps too bluntly): if you cannot find an exact 1-to-1 translation but only some sort of approximation, then do not worry about that and do not put down your own language, as there are very many such cases with other languages. If you do not believe that, I can lend you a few of my bi-directional dictionaries to check: they are all inconsistent.

Partial translations.

Partial translations, I suspect, are due to compound forms where the component-words were introduced at different times or it has a readily available equivalent in Y. Examples:

  • Email address (En.) – indirrizo email (It.) – ikheli le-e-mail (Zu.)

Y-ify a noun from X.

This can be in two ways: 1) typically, change the beginning or ending of a noun to conform to the word forms/gender/alphabet of Y, 2) change the plural to adhere to the grammar for plurals of Y. One perhaps could count a third way as being the article used with it. Examples:

  • Radio (En.) – iRadio (Zu.), i.e., Zulufy a foreign word by putting an i– in front of the noun.
  • Computer (En.) – computadora (Sp.)
  • Between English and Roman languages, such as Italian and Spanish, there are quasi rules as well: nouns with –ción (Sp.) and –zione (It.) often end up as -tion in English (e.g., educa-) and –(a)dor/-(a)dora (Sp.) as -ter or -tor (e.g., investiga-).
  • Niche (En.) – nicchio (It., masculine) / nicchia (It., feminine). The nicchio ‘recess in the wall’ travelled to France, and back to Italy came the new concept of ‘niche of a species’, for which the original term was modified into nicchia (It.) to denote the conceptual distinction, i.e., a gender change. English took niche (Fr.) for both.
  • Preparations, arrangements (Eng.) are amalungiselelo (Zu.), but software settings, being similar in idea of arrangements but not the same, is isilungiselelo (Zu.), i.e., having changed noun class (from ama- to isi-).

On the other hand, I noticed that violating certain rules resulted in grumbling. The isiZulu interface of Google has idrayivu for the ‘drive’, but although the i- is following the same as mentioned the first item, above, the few people I asked were not happy with it, because the word contains an r and isiZulu does not have the r in the alphabet.

Y-ify a verb from X.

This is grammatically more elaborate to explain than the case for the nouns, because quite a few languages have a more structured grammar than English. Let me first give an example for the plain grammar rule, present tense, for ‘to speak’ in Spanish and isiZulu in the following table (omitting the you-formal).




  hablar  root + ukukhuluma + root
I hablo -o ngikhuluma ngi-
You (singular) hablas -as ukhuluma u-
He/she/it habla -a ukhuluma u-
We hablamos -amos sikhuluma si-
You (plural) hablais -ais nikhuluma ni-
They hablaron -aron bakhuluma ba-

So, for instance, we have the English verb ‘to program’ some application and in Spanish programar, then ‘we program’ in Spanish ends up as programamos, which results from the combination of the root, which is obtained by removing the -ar from the verb, and appending the correct ending to indicate the ‘we’, i.e., -amos. The use of the gerund is composed from the auxiliary verb estar (with its root est- + -amos for the ‘we’) together with the root + -ando for the gerund, and ‘we are programming’ is in Spanish thus estamos programando. Hypothetically, if ukuprogram would be the verb for ‘to program’ in isiZulu, then ‘we program’ would be siprogram (it is not, though, see below).

Other examples of y-ifications/x-ifications—i.e., be this from X to Y or Y to X—are copiare (It.), copiar (Sp.), kopieeren (Ned.), to copy (En.), and studiare (It.), estudiar (Sp.), studeren (Ned.), to study (En.), where the Italian ­-are and Dutch –en are like the Spanish –ar and isiZulu uku- as above.

New terms for essentially different conceptualizations.

They are not direct translations or near-translations, but include also conceptually totally different ones (even though, loosely, they are translated as such). A reason why I include them as a separate option, is because here we are not even aiming at a translation, but it is intentionally different.

  • IT: Information Technology (En.) – EDV: Elektronische Datenverarbeitung (Ger.), which is, literally translated ‘electronic data processing’.
  • Computer Science (En.) – informatika (Ned.) – informatica (It., Sp.) – Informatik (Ger.): literally: the science of computers (which it is not) versus the science of information (much closer to it).

New words, using a language’s features.

Germanic languages have the fun of putting words together to create a new word with a new meaning. Arabic and Nguni language are much more semantics oriented, where the underlying idea of the stem can be reused for conceptually related entities. Examples (I looked up most in the dictionary):

  • -fund- (Zu.): something with studying/learning. ukufunda: to learn, read. umfundisi (high tones): teacher, umfundisi (low tones): preacher. imfundiso: teaching/doctine. ulwazi lemfundo: education (note: the dictionary said imfundo: knowledge, but the English ->isiZulu section says ulwazi, which I have heard before, ukwazi, and imfundiso (an example of just one of the myriad inconsistencies in bi-directional dictionaries).
  • -sebenza- (Zu.): something on working. ukusebenza: to work. umsebenzi: the work/job. abasebenzi: workers. alisebenzi: broken (not-working). insebenzo: wages (the fruit of one’s labour). uhlelokusebenza: software.

For English, a list of principles for word creation exists already, which I summarise here (with international examples added) to give you an idea, as they transfer over to several other languages as well.

Real compounding: joining words to make a new one: toothbrush and tablecloth. This is a very common feature of Germanic languages, and one of the more entertaining examples being Eisenbahnknotenpunkhinundherschieber (Ger.), which used to be an actual job title[4]. Uhlelokusebenza (Zu., ‘software’) sounds a lot like real compounding as well, based on -hlelo + -sebenza: the grammar/arrangement is working, or some such similar translation for the word components, which, to be honest, is a fabulous term compared to ‘software’ (En.). An approximation of compounding is putting a dash between the words, as in  ‘smoke-free’ (which is in Dutch just one word: rookvrij). UPDATE (29-8-2013): I just discovered there is an entire article on compounding in isiZulu [2].

Conversion: changing ‘class’ in the sense of making a noun out of a verb or vice versa, which is very common in English; e.g., to print -> printer, to push ->pusher.

Affixation: adding a prefix or a suffix; e.g., making a noun out of an adjective by adding –ness (happiness), from noun to adjective by adding –al (regional), from verb to adjective by adding –able (drinkable). The same holds for other languages, with their specific affixes; e.g.. –bar (Ger.), ­-baar (Ned.), –bile (It.) does the same in those languages as –able in English, and likewise –heid (Ned.) and –heit (Ger.) work alike the rules for the English -ness.

Other: clipping a longer word into a shorter version (flu for influenza), blending words together (smog, from smoke+fog).

Closing remarks

Ukwakhuhlelo means programming (noun), where -hlehlo is the root for ‘grammar’/‘arrangement’ (u-, izin-) and -ukwakh- relates to ‘to build’, i.e., based on compunding to form a new word. What can be modified to create a term for the verb ‘to program’? Following the basics for verb-ifying a noun by putting uku– in front of it, I would make a verb from the noun as ukukwakhuhlelo, but maybe you are more creative, like the inventor of isikhahlamezi, Thokozani Nene, was (‘fax’, and it sounds a lot nicer to the ear than one of the other translations the dictionary provides: ifeksi). Isikhahlamezi is an example of the kind of word creation where, as [1] notes, the purpose was not to create transparent output (recoverable from its origins, for there is none in this case), but to create a term with certain desired features that match word characteristics of the language, such as number of vowels and syllables.

As a last note on terms and given the readership of this blog, and having mentioned knowledge (ulwazi) before, which is easily memorizable, here it goes for ‘logic’, where the first term is easy to remember, but the other two require some practice to pronounce and remember: ilojiki; ukwazi ukuqonda nokuhlazulula ngohlelo izindaba; ukuhlela ngokulandelanisa.

Either way, I hope the range of options has given you some ideas for borrowing, adapting, and creating new words, which can give you a head start in the crowdsourcing game that we aim to launch late September/early October.


[1] Ronneberger-Siebold, E. On useful darkness: loss and destruction of transparency by linguistic change, borrowing, and word creation. Yearbook of Morphology 1999. Booij, G.E., Marle, J. (Eds.). Springer. 2001. V, pp97-120.

[2] Buthelezi, T.M. Exploring the Role of Conceptual Blending in Developing the Extension of Terminology in isiZulu Language. Alternation, 2008, 15(2):181-200.

Thanks to Charmaine and Nokubonga for the lively conversation about and suggestions for some of the isiZulu terms.

[1] Double-checking the spelling of itafula in the dictionary now, I noticed there is an entry “amathebula (arith. tables)” in the Scholar’s Zulu dictionary; what about that for the spreadsheet tables?

[2] An example of the latter may be the expression die Treppe herunter schendieren (going down the stairs), where schendieren is a germanification of the Italian scendere (thanks to my former colleague Andrea at FUB who mentioned this example).

[3] E.g., the Afrikaans word braai is used by the English as home language speakers in South Africa, even though elsewhere it is called barbeque.

[4] Eisen iron, bahn road, eisenbahn railway, knoten knots, punkt point, knotenpunkt crossroad or spaghetti junction, eisenbahnknotenpunkt railway point where the train can change tracks, hin to, und and, her fro, schieber pusher: Eisenbahnknotenpunkhinundherschieber is the guy who manually pushes the lever backward and forward so that the train moves onto the right railway track. In the late 1920/early 1930s, it was the longest German word in use (which my grandfather had happened to learn in the few years he went to school in Germany before the family moved back to the Netherlands before WW II).