Thohoyandou, and Tshivenda

I’m now in Thohoyandou, one of the largest towns in the Venda region and the site of the University of Venda, where I’ll be conducting my fieldwork this summer. It’s beautiful here — we’re up in the eastern foothills of the Soutpansberg, which are really a much more spectacular range than I was expecting. With the mountains in the northwest and a long slope down to the plains everywhere else, this place has some spectacular views.

I’ve been here four days, and have spent that time establishing contacts at UniVen, finding consultants, and finding space to record. I have my first two consultants lined up (I’m hoping for at least one or possibly two more), and the MER Mathiva language department at UniVen has been gracious enough to give me a seminar room to use as a work space for the winter. I’m very excited to be starting work on Tshivenda tomorrow.

Through the summer I’ll probably be blogging about what I’m learning in my fieldwork some, so I think perhaps I should start with a quick overview of what this language is and what I hope to find.

The Venda are a Bantu people of northern South Africa and southern Zimbabwe. If you’ve never studied a Bantu language before, you may be confused by the prefix “tshi-” I occasionally add. The Bantu languages employ a very complex system of noun classifiers, in which each noun is sorted into one of about 20 different classes — if you’ve taken a European language in which all the nouns have a gender, you can think of this as the same sort of thing except that there are (more or less) 20 genders! Generally speaking these noun classes all have a distinctive prefix, so you can always tell what class the noun is in by looking at the prefix, and sometimes you can change the meaning of a noun by switching which class prefix is attached to it. “Venda”, in this case, is just the bare root, without any prefix. If we add the class 2 prefix (used for plural human entities) to make “Vhavenda”, we get the word for the Venda people as a whole. The “tshi-” prefix is associated with (among other things) languages, so Tshivenda is the language of the Venda. In English, we can never really make up our minds whether to include the prefix or not, so you’ll see me use both Venda and Tshivenda to describe the language I’m working on.

Venda is one of the 11 national languages of South Africa, and in fact during apartheid Venda was one of the semi-autonomous homelands. (It was even more autonomous than some of the others, in that it made a bid for full independence once but never got international recognition.) All the Bantu languages share many things in common, but some of the South African Bantu languages are quite close, so that it’s very easy to pick up another if you already know one; Tshivenda, however, is much more distantly related. Every time I mentioned to someone in Joberg that I was here to study Tshivenda they’d laugh and tell me I was crazy — “it’s too hard!”

Like most Bantu languages, Tshivenda is tonal. In comparison to other Bantu languages I’ve looked at, my impression is that tone seems to bear quite a heavy functional load. There are quite a number of minimal pairs — while meeting with Professor Netshisaulu this morning he rattled off half a dozen off the top of his head, including ṱhóhó ‘head’ vs. ṱhoho ‘monkey’. This choice of example seemed a bit prophetic when I walked out of his office and was promptly greeted by a troup of monkeys.