-6- Ubuntu


Noun. From Xhosa.

“I am because we are”


The translation of ubuntu given above is a simplified version of what is, in fact, a huge philosophy in the southern regions of Africa. To many linguistics (myself included), it seems to make sense initially, but then it looks as though I’ve just stuck two subjects together without adding any predicates. The prescriptive linguists who read this are more than likely shouting at their screens now =P

The definitions of ubuntu vary somewhat but all have a common strand running through them – humanity. Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee offers the slightly wordier definition of “I am what I am because of who we all are.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu also gives information on ubuntu, indicating a closer relationship to humanity in say that it is “the essence of being human” and that you “can’t exist as a human being in isolation.” Nelson Mandela was interviewed for his thoughts on ubuntu, and a paper by Kevin Chaplin offers further insight into the word, breaking it down to perhaps its most simplistic of definitions, “It is about “we” – not “me.””

Ubuntu is a name that many people had not heard of until relatively recently, probably due to its use as an open-source computer operating system and even its branding in cola form. Nevertheless, this philosophy has been alive for countless years and can be identified in other languages within Africa; in Chichewa (Malawi), it is called uMunthu  and in Kitara (Uganda) is it known as obuntu. Other languages describe the same noun in shifting around these forms, such as utu, undu and umundu.

Common ubuntu phrases, when translated into English, comprise of the following exemplified structures:

“Hello – how are you today?”
“I am okay if you are okay.”

“Did you sleep well?”
“I slept well if you slept well.”

To an English speaker, these more than likely sound unusual or could perhaps lead to think of phrases that make no sense – or sound incredibly British (e.g. “What did you think of that film?” “Well, I enjoyed it if you enjoyed it!” ad infinitum). Nevertheless, the feeling of ubuntu in the cultural aspect of the language seems to far outweigh the finer pragmatics of the sentence itself, just like idiomatic phrases in English (e.g. when I tell you that I’ll “lend you a hand,” I’m not going to chop off a limb, give it to you and request it back within an allotted timeframe. At least I don’t think I’d ever do that).

I would love to hear your views on ubuntu. Have you ever used it in a sentence? Have you known what it means? Can you think of any English one-word equivalent that could fully encompass its meaning?

Get commenting =]


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