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“Cultural Diversity and the Element of Negation” – How Tshivenda Speakers are Often Misunderstood

Nelson Rholihlahla MandelaMunzhedzi James Mafela’s new book, Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela: Reflection through the eyes of the poets, has just been released by Unisa Press.

In this innovative anthology of essays, Mafela explores the image of Madiba through the prism of poetry written about him:

The poetry, in a number of indigenous southern African languages with translations, is interpreted and analysed, thus bringing previously scattered, neglected or unknown material into the public domain.

Mafela holds a BA Hons degree in Translation studies and a DLitt et Phil degree from the University of South Africa (UNISA), where he’s been a lecturer in TshiVenḓa since 1985.

Read an essay by Mafela, entitled “Cultural Diversity and the Element of Negation”, in which he explains how negative constructions in TshiVenḓa are used to express positive meanings, but are often misunderstood by people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

The essay focuses on “Negation as a Form of Indirect Verbal Style” and makes use of phrases from TshiVenḓa to illustrate how the language works:

3. Negation as a Form of Indirect Verbal Style

South Africa is a country characterised by different racial and ethnic groups. This means the existence of many cultures and languages in one country. These racial and ethnic groups live together and communicate with each other on a daily basis, hence there is cultural and language diversity. As there are several different languages, there will always be misunderstandings in communication between these different groups, especially if one group is not prepared to learn the culture and language of the other. As a result, communication in various spheres of life is affected; for example, in the workplace, when travelling, at social, religious and traditional gatherings, and at schools. Racial and ethnic groups construct sentences differently when sending messages to listeners. Some racial or ethnic groups, the Vhavenḓa, for example, have a tendency to use the indirect verbal style in the form of negative constructions when expressing positive sentiments. These negative constructions are often used in relation to persons. They are uttered mainly in answer to a question. The negative construction usually starts with the phrase A si … (It is not …). According to Poulos (1990), negative constructions are forms which merely negate positive actions or states (p. 254). However, if the negative construction is used in an indirect verbal style, it expresses a positive action or state.

The negative constructions in this case are used for different purposes, among them, to confirm the statement, to emphasise a point, or to attract attention. The Tshivenḓa sentence construction A si ene (It is not him/her) is used to confirm a statement. A si ene (It is not him/her) literally indicates that this is not the person to whom reference has been made. But, used as an indirect verbal style in Tshivenḓa, it means that this is the person to whom reference has been made. After being asked to confirm the identity of the person mentioned, instead of responding positively by saying Ndi ene (It is him/her), the respondent responds negatively A si ene (It is not him/her), implying the positive rather than responding positively. The real message is concealed in a negative response. Listeners who are not conversant with the Tshivenḓa culture and its language usage may find it difficult to interpret the message as intended by the respondent, concluding that the meaning is negative, as expressed.

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