Lexical borrowings in South African English from Nguni languages in the realm of traditional healing and witchcraft

Aleksandra Łukomska (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań)

The paper is going to be concerned with the linguistic practises involved in the diverse forms of traditional healing and witchcraft rites existing in the present day South Africa. The main focus will be put upon the lexical interaction between the use of English and the use of a group of indigenous Nguni languages in the enactment of those rites.

1. Traditional healing and witchcraft in the contemporary South African society.

Even though South Africa has been under a strong influence of the Western ideas and the processes of modernisation, traditional healing and witchcraft remains a very salient cultural practice in the black communities. As it is the case with many other traditional practices, which are viewed as contradictory, or even threatening to the modern social order, it is very strictly controlled by South African legislative system. The early 1990s brought a significant increase in witchcraft-related crimes, which were thoroughly examined by the Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murders. The findings of the commission (The Ralushai Report) served as the basis for the contemporary legal regulations of traditional healing and witchcraft. The topic, however, is not only present in the realm of legislation, but is also strongly represented in the realm of mass media. The articles on the ritual murders constitute an important part of the crime section in both local and national newspapers. Moreover, many traditional healers use the power of media for the purpose of advertising their services. The traditional is combined with the modern, and the indigenous languages (the languages of the old cultures, of the ancestors) with the English language (associated with modernity, symbolic capital).

2. The presence of English in South Africa and its contact with other languages in the area

The status of English was different when compared to the African indigenous languages (including Afrikaans) already at the beginning of the presence of the British in the Cape Colony as an occupant (1795). It was a widely known language with a well codified and elaborated standard variety. The language, however, did not resist the process of mutual borrowings with morphological and structural influences. And indeed, already before the British colony was settled, "it (...) included words of South African origin from the narratives of travellers and naturalists" (Branford - Claughton 2002: 209-210), e.g. kloof , agapanthus , springbok , a respectable Hottentot. Consequently, the language "diffused from white European (specifically British) mother-tongue speakers to other communities" (Lass 2002: 104), which gave rise to what is known under the term "New Englishes", and the diverse South African English vocabulary indicates how varied the groups of its speakers are. At present, there is a widespread enthusiasm for English in South Africa (viewed as an international language, preferred as medium of education) (Crystal 1998), but the interest in the localised varieties of English is also growing.

3. Examples of lexical borrowings in the South African English from Nguni languages

It can be noted that a considerable number of lexical items of Nguni origin connected with traditional healing and witchcraft is widely used by the speakers of South African English (often with a semantic extension). The discussion, however, will also include the words which are not extensively used (more specialist), but are included in the South African English dictionaries.


Branford, William - J. S. Claughton. 2002. "Mutual lexical borrowings among some languages of southern Africa: Xhosa, Afrikaans and English", in: Rajend Mesthrie (ed.), 199-215.

Lass, Roger. 2002. "South African English", in Rajend Mesthrie (ed.), 104-126.

Crystal, David. 1998. English as a global language . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mesthrie, Rajend (ed.). 2002. Language in South Africa . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.