Telamisile Phumlile Mkhatshwa, Karen Ferreira-Meyers, and Phindile Alice Dlamini: The Transformation of Language and Communicative Behaviour in Eswatini
"Covid-19 confirmed the productive and adaptable nature of Eswatini’s mother tongue, siSwati. The Swati society coined new siSwati and mixed (siSwati-English) words to contextualise Covid-19. "
According to Thorne (2020), more than 1,000 new words – both non-specialised and technical terminology – have been created during the current pandemic. Historically speaking, every time there has been a major socio-economic event (e.g. recession, Brexit, war), new language generation goes into acceleration, into overdrive. The scope of lexical innovation in relation to the coronavirus is unprecedented as additional language is needed to describe completely new situations and our reactions to them. The coronavirus pandemic has led to an explosion of new words and phrases, both in English and in other languages. This new vocabulary helps us make sense of the changes that have suddenly become part of our everyday lives, our “new normal.” Established terms such as “self-isolating,” “pandemic,” “quarantine,” “lockdown” and “essential workers” have increased in use, while coronavirus/COVID-19 neologisms are being coined faster than ever.
Covid-19 confirmed the productive and adaptable nature of Eswatini’s mother tongue, siSwati. The Swati society coined new siSwati and mixed (siSwati-English) words to contextualise Covid-19. Code-switching - already a common practise before the pandemic - became even more visible, as siSwati speakers switched to English to talk about many things Covid-related. This is in accordance with Madonsela’s (2014, p.167) definition of code switching as the “practice of altering elements of language in order to contextualise talk in interaction” due to varying discourse practises and knowledge in society. This paper analyses how language and communicative behaviour transformed due to health regulations and protective measures introduced by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Government of Eswatini. Our research method is reflexive, observatory and participatory as all three researchers live in Eswatini and are linguists. Data was collected from social and verbal interactions as well as signage.
New and Repurposed siSwati Words
According to The Times of Eswatini (March 2021), Prince Lonkhokhelo named Covid-19 dukanezwe, ‘to wander away from home.’ He felt the term dukanezwe was appropriate because Covid-19 catches those who fail to respect lockdown regulations and wander about. A person loduka nelive never returns home and is frowned upon for forsaking family, sometimes due to being bewitched. The term encourages a non-English speaking Swati to stay at home to avoid contracting Covid-19. Even if a liSwati might struggle to relate to foreign concepts such as lockdown, the cultural associations of dukanezwe could convince the person to follow lockdown measures.
The second newly coined term is mahazane, ‘one who constantly travels/something that spreads uncontrollably fast.’ The infinitive form of the verb is /ku-haz-a/ ‘to travel/go anywhere,’ the unsystematic act of going anywhere one pleases. The noun, mahazane, connotes habitual and continuous spreading, and is associated with a young lovesick or promiscuous girl, who has multiple sexual relations. Such a wild girl leaves a trail of physical and emotional destruction in the community, and emaSwati have a very low opinion of a loose cannon. Also, kuhaza means forcefully spreading across a vast area in a short space of time, like Covid-19 which rapidly spreads through social contact. The visual image implies that Covid is invincible, overpowering and very tricky to deal with, thus caution is crucial.
The third new term is inkhotsamave, ‘an entity that licked/wiped nations.’ Inkhotsamave is a Class 9 noun. Class 9 consists largely of animals and plants (Sibanda & Mthembu, 1996), but also comprises words that denote persons with outstanding characteristics such as /in-gwadl-a/ ‘a prostitute’, /in-jing-a/; a rich person’ to name but a few. Like such nouns, Covid-19 has the exceptional character of carnage as within a year it killed millions of people. To emaSwati, anything as rampant as Covid-19 conjures the image of a harsh veld fire fanned by strong winds that hurtles towards unavoidable wreckage.
Moreover, existing terms such as lubhubhane, ‘a life threatening disease that kills multitudes of people’ (used previously in past pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, swine flu, smallpox and tuberculosis) conjures a sense of danger and demonstrates that Covid-19 is terminal at a large scale. Covid-19 invoked the memories of Eswatini’s battle against HIV/AIDS because of its incalculable harm globally and nationally, hence the reuse of the term lubhubhane.
There has been mixed reaction to these terms. The Times of Eswatini (April 2020) reported that the Ministry of Health in Eswatini condemned the use of Covid-19 new vernacular terms such as inkhotsamave and mahazane because they “have a negative sting” and discriminate. Indeed, some might view the terms as negative but that did not warrant the Ministry to condemn the use of mother tongue terms that indicate the society’s attempt to understand and grapple with the new illness. The terms are useful resources as they may help health practitioners understand how emaSwati conceptualise Covid-19 and thus assist them to formulate improved health interventions in communities. Another concern is that the officials did not suggest or present an official mother tongue non-discriminatory word for Covid-19 that could be used countrywide.
New and Repurposed SiSwati-English Words
Code switching and improvisation resulted in a surge of Covid-related siSwati-English terms. Most of these terms which combine siSwati and English are slang and carry a humorous tone. As such, they were popular in social media conversations and memes. The terms made talking about contracting Covid-19, recovering from it or losing a loved one bearable and less stigmatized. One of these words is khokhovula, a slang word adapted from South African Kwaito music and township culture. Apart from rhyming with the word Covid, it suggests ‘to open something,’ kuvula as Covid enters any space or country uninvited. Other terms for Covid are covat, covas and covivi. Corona is referred to as roro, the rona, riri.
AstraZeneca vaccine was the first to be used in Eswatini, and its pronunciation was difficult for the elderly and cumbersome for most siSwati speakers. SiSwati does not have the letter “r” and the consonant sequencing in AstraZeneca is inexistent in siSwati word formation. Hence locals called AstraZeneca: Anti Zanele (aunt Zanele), Astra Zandile (Astra from Opel Astra, a car brand known in Eswatini). These phrases rhyme with Astrazeneca thus most people when conversing (informally) can easily connect them to the vaccine and find them humorous.
Transformation of EmaSwati’s Social Behaviour
Mask wearing, social distancing, virtual meetings froze interactions that normally enhance language and make communication human. This was challenging for emaSwati, a communal society that supports each other and subscribes to the African spirit of ubuntu. Covid-19 resulted in the impromptu banning of gatherings and limits to the number of people attending weddings, church services, and funerals. Yet, emaSwati have the tradition of kufukama, where female members of the extended family go to a bereaved family’s home, a week before the funeral, to give moral support and guard the corpse the night before funeral (Swaziland News, 15 Jan 2021). The community members, colleagues and friends of the deceased visit the bereaved family on a daily basis to mourn the death and offer condolences, kulila. However, when the pandemic intensified, government officials banned kufukama and physical visits to a bereaved family (Shongwe and Huang, 2021). This shocked emaSwati as kufukama is their way of life; it depressed many and diminished the spirit of ubuntu.
In this paper we analysed how language and communicative behaviour transformed due to the health regulations and protective measures introduced by the World Health Organization (WHO) first, and then by the Government of Eswatini. We briefly analysed language (comparing English and siSwati vocabulary related to Covid-19) and social behaviour (facial expressions, elbow/foot bump). Notably, code-switching is important (English-siSwati), in particular at the beginning of a pandemic when one of the involved languages does not yet have corresponding terminology. Code-switching also resulted in a Swati-Western cultural exchange that reshaped Eswatini’s spatial and hygiene practices and the spirit of ubuntu. Further research is necessary, especially when it comes to investigating whether the newly coined words and terms are acceptable for emaSwati at large.
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