The Language of Letting Go

(Of All Hope of Sounding Comprehensible)

Well, I’m back in the States again after another amazing trip to South Africa.  I had a wonderful time connecting with many of our fabulous SA coaches, helping run the wilderness STAR (Self-Transformation Adventure Retreat) and beta-testing a plan to help some brilliant educators transform a small African village.

sa flag lion cubs zebras drinking

It’s always a bit of a bummer to be an American overseas, because everyone else seems to have been brought up in a regular Babel of linguistic influences, and they all speak a little of this, a tad of that.  It’s bad enough in Europe, where the local lingos, whatever they are, at least have English cognates.  In South Africa, everyone but me seems to speak approximately 80 languages, none of them remotely similar to anything I’ve ever heard.

To remedy this situation, I am once again trying to Teach Myself Zulu.  I’m serious.  I ordered some Teach Yourself Zulu CDs from and everything.

teach self zulu

The first CD is sobering; not only is Zulu from a language family about which I know nothing (Bantu), it’s also a tonal language AND a click dialect.  The concept of tones is fine with me, since I’ve studied Chinese.  But the clicks are going to be a real challenge.  I’ve asked click-dialect speakers to help me pronounce Zulu words, and after a few repetitions they always look at me with despair in their eyes, like people trying to teach a chicken to knit.

Fortunately, my Teach Yourself CDs have a careful description of all the click variations in Zulu.  Some South African languages are so click-laden that native speakers sound as if they’re simultaneously talking and operating tiny keyboards with their tonsils.  Zulu, I’m glad to report, has only three basic clicks, each of which has four variations.  I couldn’t distinguish between the variations to get out of hot-tubbing with Dick Cheney.

cheney and queen

Fortunately, the three basic clicks are described in Teach Yourself Zulu with a cozy clarity that makes a lot of sense.  To wit:

The first click, says the instructor on my CD (who sounds like Queen Elizabeth with an Afrikaans accent) is “the sound many people make when annoyed.” I know the sound I make when annoyed: it’s a high, whimpering gasp, like a dog who desperately wants something it is not allowed to have.  “Hnnng, hnng, hnng, hnng.”  Like that.  Good.  One down, two to go.

The second click, says Queen Elizabeth, is “the sound a cork makes popping out of a bottle.” This is vaguely familiar to me, but I’m at a disadvantage because I grew up Mormon, and never heard a cork popping out of a bottle until I was past the language-development years.  So I’ll make the sound of a cap coming off a root beer bottle: “PFFFFfffff.”  I figure that will do.

The third Zulu click, according to Queen Elizabeth, is (I am not making this up) “the sound commonly made when urging a horse.”  I assume this means a horse that one is riding.  The sound I make to urge a horse I’m riding is as follows:  “Please don’t run please don’t run DON’T RUN!  STOP!  STAY!  SIT! HELP!

So this is how my Zulu practice dialogue would sound if you translated the meaning into English:


“Good morning, Queen Elizabeth PLEASE DON’T RUN!  So nice to see you hnnng hnnng hnnng.”

“Good morning, Mr. Cheney PFFFfffff.  I would like to hnnng hnnng hnnng buy some edible grubs SIT! HELP! such as those I have seen DON’T RUN! on the PFFFfffff Discovery Channel hnnng hnnng hnnng.”

“Of course PFFFfffff, madame STOP!  HELP!  Would you hnnng hnnng hnnng like a large one PFFFfffff?”

“I’d prefer PLEASE DON’T RUN! two small ones hnnng hnnng hnnng PFFFffff.”

“An excellent PFFFfff choice, madame SIT! STAY!  The large ones sometimes pupate hnnng hnnng hnnng if not refrigerated HELP!  SIT! PFFFffff.”

And so on.


I just can’t wait to show my Zulu-speaking friends how much I’ve learned!  I’m sure they’ll be motivated by the amount of progress I’ve made, in the sense that teaching chickens to knit will suddenly seem easy by comparison teaching me to talk.

So now I must go practice my clicks.  A huge thank-you to all my dear friends around the world for their tolerance, generosity, and companionship.  The network of the Tribe wraps itself all the way around this delicate planet of ours, and I am so grateful.