Giving language a universal voice: The journey to reviving, resuscitating and reigniting isiXhosa after 30 years

Hlumela Palesa Mkabile graduates
Hlumela Palesa Mkabile graduates

Hlumela Palesa Mkabile, a recent Masters in Linguistics graduate of Rhodes University, has opted to explore dynamic and versatile research about the Xhosa language in her thesis, which is the first of its kind in over 30 years.

Hlumela was recently interviewed by PDMM student Boniswa Matiwane, about her inspiring research.

Q:  What has your work meant for you as an aspiring academic and a South African living in a transforming society?

A: I have put my heart and soul into this work, not because I intentionally sought out to make a difference, but because this work felt important to me and it felt important for my language. If this work makes any contribution to helping us understand, appreciate and record our languages a bit better, even in the smallest way, then I have done my part and it’s been a great honour and I hope to do more for my language. Our African languages are worthy to be researched and recorded in detail, and are capable of anything that we can achieve with English.

Q: What words would you use to describe your experience?

A: It has been an experience of growth. It has been an overwhelming experience and it has been an experience that has made me appreciate isiXhosa more.

Q: What are the key challenges that you have faced whilst conducting research?

A: I think I experienced the typical research challenges that most postgraduates or researchers experience. But I also think it's quite challenging to try to contribute to an area that has not been looked at in over 30 years, because there is such a huge information gap that you have to overcome. That said, it's also quite rewarding to know that I was able to contribute the little that I could to help close this gap and hopefully trigger further research. There is still so much that is unknown in this area. I also had self-doubt creep in at times. For instance, I remember presenting some of my findings at my first conference last year, and I just felt small presenting in a room of linguists who have done great things for African languages and beyond, and linguists that I look up to.

Q: How did you know that this was the right research field for you?

A: I can't ever say that there was a particular moment where I realised that this was ‘it’ for me. I've always enjoyed linguistics and found it interesting, even though it was also on the challenging side for me. This research and my journey in the field of African morphology is a result of years of guidance and mentoring by my supervisor, Prof Ron Simango. He made me realise that there is so much more that still needs to be uncovered about isiXhosa – from the simple things that we as mother-tongue speakers take for granted to complex structures that we use but never think about.

Q: What made you feel that there was a need to deal with this topic specifically?

A: In my Honours research project, I described the verb in isiXhosa, I described the potential number of affixes that could be attached to a verb root and I also briefly described the various orders that the prefixes could take, when these orders occurred, as well as which verbal extensions could co-occur. It was this initial probing that led to my Masters. I remember having discussions with my supervisor about which verbal extension combinations were possible and which ones were not. Prof Simango (who is an incredible linguist and a speaker of ciNsenga and ciCewa) and I would go back and forth looking at the suffixation of extensions in ciNsenga and ciCewa and comparing their patterns to patterns in isiXhosa. It was during this process that it dawned on us that isiXhosa behaves in quite a unique way and there was currently no one looking into this even though there were so many questions that needed to be answered.

Q: What would you say was your biggest source of inspiration?

A: I think as people, we draw inspiration from a range of things and people, depending on the time and head space that we are in at a particular moment. I think I was mostly inspired by the people in my life, including my family who has always supported me and encouraged me to follow my own path. I was also moved by students and young academics across the country who continuously challenge the status quo. And of course, my supervisor Prof Simango, who has done amazing work for African languages and is an African linguistics giant in my view. My Thursday prayer group also continuously encouraged me to soldier on, even when I was exhausted.

Q: What does this mean for isiXhosa linguistically and do you see this work growing and being looked into more?

A: I honestly hope that my study makes fellow isiXhosa mother-tongue speakers and linguists start questioning the things that we take for granted in the language. I hope that my study will be a conversation-starter, because there are still so many questions that need to be answered in this area alone and other areas of the language.

Q: If a prospective Masters student interested in expanding on your work asked for advice, what would you say to them?

A: Trust your instincts and always remember that your work is important. Also, don't be afraid to question things that seem to be set in stone – language is an evolving thing.

Q: What are your future prospects?

A: I really want to expand my research. I want to answer questions that I didn't get to answer in my Masters, and to do my PhD. I also want to make my findings more accessible to the general public because I want people to talk more about our languages and what they can do.