His Words Will Be Rejected’: Performative Eloquence, Identity, and Modernity in the 19th Century Zulu Kingdom

Author: Raevin Jimenez (University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, United States)
Speaker: Raevin Jimenez
Topic: Language and Spatiotemporal Frames
The (SCOPUS / ISI) GLOCAL AFALA 2023 General Session


This paper considers the ways in which ruling elite and high-ranking subjects in the early 19th century Zulu Kingdom used language to define the eminence of the sovereignty. Drawing primarily on oral sources contained in the James Stuart Archive, I argue the Zulu drew on older ideas about the respectability of performative eloquence – deletion and replacement of sounds characteristic of hlonipha, a culture of respect – to frame the superiority of the courtly dialect. Menial subjects within the kingdom, and despised outsiders and enemies on the kingdoms frontiers were sometimes labeled amaZosha, an epithet denoting poor speech habits. Alternatively, the Zulu referred to low-ranking people as amaLala, a status that some scholars have analyzed as an ethnicity or social position because of translations that emphasize depraved sleeping habits, but that also translates to ‘those who speak with their tongues lying flat in their mouths.’ Frontierspeople were described both as eaters of human flesh and as bumbling speakers, void of articulation. Analysis of the various ways the Zulu conceptualized eloquence and ineloquence reveal a pattern of metaphorical thought in which amaZosha were associated with the ancestral past, incapable of keeping up with the times. I argue that through the construction of courtly identity associated in part with eloquence and constructed against the foil of low-status dialects, the early 19th century Zulu had begun to think of themselves not only as socially distinct, but also to conceptualize their status and identity as ‘modern.’ In this paper, I seek to unravel the complex web of references to language in the James Stuart Archive, and to use Zulu-language terminology to outline indigenous concepts of identity and of modernity.

Keywords: Zulu, Oral Sources, Identity, Temporality