_IsiHlonipho_ : gender dynamics of a South African politeness register

Rudwick, Stephanie Inge

University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa


IsiHlonipo, a linguistic politeness register which is exhibited primarily among the speakers of the Nguni language cluster in South Africa but also exists among other African language speakers, is a linguistic custom that, until recently, remained empirically understudied in reference to isiZulu-speakers. This paucity of research was addressed in a post-doctoral research project of which this paper emerges by focusing on the gender aspects that the usage of the variety involves. In broad terms, the register is a linguistic strategy primarily, but not only practiced by married Zulu women who, in order to linguistically demonstrate respect, avoid the use of syllables occurring in the names of relatives in their speech, most importantly the husband’s siblings. One of the facets thus far ignored is that the usage of isiHlonipho lexical items is not an exclusively female practice. Irvine and Gal aptly criticize that European scholars, who worked on isiHlonipo described it as ‘women’s speech’ and “entirely ignored its political dimension and its usage by men” (2000: 47). This one-dimensional exploration of the gender dynamics involved in the politeness register shall be addressed here in reference to isiZulu-speakers in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Through interdisciplinary, qualitative research in both urban and rural areas of the province I explore and interrogate whether, in how far and in which contexts and circumstances the usage of the register is a male and/or female practice and in what way it perpetuates constructions of femininity and/or masculinity. While relying on postmodern paradigms I examine in how far isiHlonipho determines gendered power relations and associated identities within the context of the construction of a Zulu ethnic identity, i.e. ‘Zuluness’. It is argued, among other things, that a profound understanding of the traditional politeness register and the cultural system of respect [hlonipha] still provides ‘traditional’ isiZulu-speakers with much desired recognition and with a sense of being “seen” in Sennett’s (2003) terminology. Furthermore, the paper discusses the urban decline of isiHlonipho in South Africa in comparison to the demise of other indigenous politeness registers in the world.


IRVINE JT. & GAL S. 2000. Language Ideology and Linguistic Discrimination. In: PV. Kroskrity (ed.). Regimes of Language. Ideologies, Politics and Identities. Oxford: James Curry. pp 35-84.

SENNETT R. 2003. Respect. The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality. London/New York: Penguin Books.

Session: Paper session
Gender 2 (Identity)
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 16