Sign Language: The Silent System

I recently had the opportunity to meet Nombulelo Cekwana, Folio’s experienced South African Sign Language interpreter who shared details of her fascinating job. I was quite surprised when I learned that a country with eleven official languages had only one sign language. This fact made me think about the status of sign language in South Africa.

Let’s begin by clarifying that sign language is not universal. We may think that creating a new communication system with different varieties is not very practical. But, like spoken languages, sign languages are unfixed entities that rely on culture and evolve according to users’ needs.

Signs can be based on visual images, and speakers from different cultures may associate words with different concepts. The sign for ‘December’ in Spanish Sign Language is a good example, as it is represented by a traditional instrument played during Christmas in Spain called a ‘zambomba’.

‘December’ – Spanish Sign Language
Child playing the zambomba

Signs can also rely on the fingerspelling, like ‘December’ in American Sign Language, which consists of an abbreviated spelling of the word, using its first letters ‘DEC’.

‘December’ – American Sign Language

Due to the lexicon differences, spelling patterns will not fit every language, as the difference between ‘January’ and the Spanish equivalent ‘enero’ shows clearly.

The result of language variation is a non-universal signing system, but also sign languages being independent of spoken languages, i.e. in countries like South Africa, the UK and the US, English is the lingua franca, but each country has a different sign language.

The sign for ‘Monday’ is an example of initialism in British and American Sign Language, as both use signs for the letter ‘M’, with the contrast that each of them uses their own fingerspelling system.

Signs for ‘Monday’ (left) – British Sign Language; and ‘M’ (right) – American Sign Language

South African Sign Language uses a different system: The sign for ‘Monday’ is based on the order of the days in the week, as we can notice by comparing ‘Monday’ and ‘Tuesday’.

Signs for ‘Monday’ (left) and ‘Tuesday’ (right) – South African Sign Language


The absence of a direct link between signed and spoken languages can be ascribed to the evolution of sign languages. Their evolution was determined by education. As the majority of deaf children are born to hearing families, they learn their mother tongue at school. An example of the crucial role of education in the evolution of sign languages is the teaching of sign language in Ireland. Boys and girls were educated in separate schools applying different systems, which resulted in a deaf community with gender dialects. However, the gap diminished as women tended to acquire the male variety after school.

The first evidence for the use of signs to educate deaf children dates back to 15th century Spain, when a Spanish monk began using a manual alphabet to teach his deaf pupils. But it was in France where a real deaf education system was implemented for the first time in the mid-18th century by the Abbe Charles Michel de l’Épée. The French teaching method was adopted in the US when the American School for the Deaf was established in 1817 with the assistance of a French educator. In Ireland, sign language was also influenced by the French method, which was taught in the Catholic deaf institutions. In Britain, the sign language that emerged in the first school for the deaf set the basis for British Sign Language, and from there it was exported to Australia and New Zealand. The signing methods of these three countries are considered dialects of the same sign language called BANZSL (British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language).

As a consequence of this evolution, American and Irish sign languages are closer to French Sign Language than to British sign language, whereas sign language in the UK, Australia and New Zealand is quite similar.


South African Sign Language is considered a descendant of BANZSL and according to Ethnologue, the correspondence between British Sign Language and SASL is 60%. The history of South Africa is reflected in the evolution of the language, which was influenced by different signing methods. The first school for deaf white children was run by Irish nuns, who introduced Irish Sign Language. There were other schools that began using British Sign Language, the first one was established by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1881. And because of the presence of American text books, American fingerspelling was introduced.

De la Bat

The National Institute for the Deaf (NID) also utilises the British Sign Language System. Established by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1881, the NID would go on to become an invaluable asset to the South African deaf community: It gave rise to De la Bat, the independent school for the deaf in Worcester. Training and skills development initiatives by the NID continue to make the labour market more accessible to the deaf community, and residential care facilities provide homes to many members.

Sign language was, however, mainly used by the deaf pupils outside the classroom as it was considered an inferior mode of communication until the end of the 20th century, to the point of being forbidden in schools as a teaching method. There were also other reasons for an increasing contrast between the sign languages of different schools. Under the apartheid policies, children were separated by race, and black children were also separated by mother tongue. Nevertheless, despite the division-generated varieties, it did not result in different sign languages. Even if the system used differed from one school to the next, deaf students moved around the country and interacted with one other. Consequently, the varieties tended to converge.

Presently SASL is slowly gaining recognition. As from 2014 Sign Language is taught as a first language in South African schools for the deaf. The reference language used nowadays in deaf education throughout the country is English, and signers are more connected through the extensive use of technology. These aspects are causing standardisation of South African Sign Language, even if certain regional dialectal differences are maintained as in any natural language.

Nombulelo Cekwana

Sharing impressions with Folio’s interpreter made me think about the role of sign language in deaf people’s lives. It is of the same importance as mother-tongue language for everyone else. She amazed me with her experience of the most challenging jobs she had to perform in hospitals, like interpreting for a woman in labour or giving news about a patient’s disease. Considering the possibility of experiencing one of these situations whilst being deprived of language makes us understand the importance of sign language and the people who do valuable work so that communication is available for everybody.

Raquel Sánchez Herero 05/09/2019

  herman.botha@foliotranslations.com botha   Sep 05, 2019   History, Linguistics   0 Comment Read More

Two Rosettas, One Mission

On 12 November 2014 a space module bounced gently in the vastness of space before settling down on a comet millions of kilometres from Earth. Philae had hitched a ride on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe to analyse and photograph 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

On 19 July 1799 Pierre-François Bouchard inspected building rubble near the town of Rosetta in Egypt, thousands of kilometres from France, when he discovered a black stone covered in three ancient scripts. As an army engineer Bouchard had hitched a ride on Napoleon’s war machine and unwittingly stumbled upon the key to deciphering a 3 500-year-old language.

Now there may be a slight difference in the technologies involved, but both rocks helped us to piece together a fundamental portion of our past. 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko improved our understanding of planet formation and without the Rosetta Stone, Egyptologists may still have been searching the heavens for the architects of the pyramids.

Mission firsts

Rosetta spacecraft:

  • The first European spacecraft to brush past the primordial objects in the asteroid belt.
  • The first spacecraft to fly next to and orbit a comet headed towards the sun.
  • Rosetta’s Philae lander performed the first controlled touchdown on a comet.
  • The first probe to examine a frozen comet as it is thawed by the sun.

Rosetta Stone:

  • The first trilingual stela discovered by a colonial power in the Middle East.
  • The first time demotic and hieroglyphic text was translated into French.
  • Provided the first direct glimpse of Ancient Egyptian officialdom.
  • The first time Middle Eastern war booty changed hands between the French and English.

Left: Pierre-Francois Bouchard; Right: Johann Dietrich Wörner (Director General of the European Space Agency)

Facts written in stone


  • An analysis of the composition of water vapour on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko disproved the hypothesis that comets of this nature bequeathed mother earth the gift of water ─ the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in the water from the comet is three times that found in terrestrial water.
  • The absence of a magnetic field around the comet suggests that magnetism did not play a role in the formation of planetary building blocks ─ at least not once they reached a certain size.
  • Solar radiation, not photons from the sun, is responsible for the electrons within a 1 km radius of the comet.

Rosetta Stone:

  • The presence of Greek on the stela confirms the fact that Egypt was under the Ptolemaic yoke in that time.
  • The stone proclaims that “[Ptolemy V] possessed a divine heart which was beneficent towards the gods; and he hath given gold in large quantities, and grain in large quantities to the temples.” From this we can deduce that even the foreign rulers of Egypt, such as Ptolemy, derived their legitimacy from the local gods, more specifically the priests.
  • The demotic script separating the Greek and hieroglyphics contains ideographs that represent ideas or concepts independent of any particular language. “Demotic” denotes a kind of language used by ordinary people.

Even though the tablets that linguists and language lovers consult these days are not made from granite, the information they contain would not have been available without the contributions of amateur archaeologists and linguistic savants such as Piere-François Bouchard and Jean-François Champollion*, or the engineering feats of the Johann-Dietrich Wörners whose futuristic inventions illuminate our past.

*One of the founding figures in the field of Egyptology credited with deciphering hieroglyphics.

  herman.botha@foliotranslations.com botha   Feb 14, 2019   History, Technology   0 Comment Read More

What happened to the language Jesus spoke?

After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

11 Give us this day our daily bread.

12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

When these words were first spoken it was not in Hebrew, Greek, Latin or any of the languages usually associated with antiquity. Jesus spoke Aramaic. In this blog we explore the origins and current status of this “obscure” language in which some of the world’s most ubiquitous ideas were first formulated.

Origins and Development

Aramaic was first spoken by Aramean tribes who lived between the northern Levant and the northern Euphrates valley. By 1000 BC these Semites ruled over various kingdoms in what is today known as western Syria. Under the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-605 BC) the footprint of this language grew considerably, eventually covering modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, certain parts of Palestine, Kuwait, Eastern Arabia, Northern Arabia, and areas in Turkey and Iran. Thanks to the prolific Neo-Assyrian scribes, Aramaic was the official language of the subsequent Neo-Babylonian Empire (605-539 BC) and the Ahaemenid Empire (539-323 BC). By the time Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount, this originally tribal language had been the lingua franca of the Middle East for centuries.

Aramaic Today

Modern Aramaic is classified into Eastern, Central, and Western Aramaic, and various dialects are found in each subcategory. There is a significant difference between the Jewish, Christian, and Mandaean variants of Modern Eastern Aramaic. In many instances different dialects are not mutually intelligible. This is the case in Urmia, for example, where the variants of Modern Eastern Aramaic spoken by the Assyrian Christians and Jews differ so much that they do not understand each other despite living in the same geographical location.

Of the three varieties of Modern Aramaic the Eastern variant remains the most resilient. The Turoyo variant of Central Aramaic is mostly spoken by members of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Mlahsô variant recently became extinct. What’s left of Western Aramaic is found in villages scattered across Southern Syria and in expat communities of larger cities in the Levant. As a liturgical language, however, Aramaic seems to be as steadfast as ever.

Featured image: Christ Pantocrator mosaic in Byzantine style, from the Cefalù Cathedral, Sicily, c. 1130



  herman.botha@foliotranslations.com botha   Sep 27, 2018   History   0 Comment Read More

Jerome: The Patron Saint of Translators


St. Jerome is known as many things – scholar, historian, translator, and polemicist. In this blog I give an overview of his life and explain why he came to be known as the Patron Saint of Translators. Born in 347 AD in Stridon, a province of ancient Rome now situated on the Balkan Peninsula, his scholarly journeys would take him to Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and finally Bethlehem, where he died on 30 September 420 AD.

Early life

Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus left Stridon at the age of 12 for the capitol of the Roman Empire and to further his education in grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy. It is said that he offset the feelings of guilt generated by his lifestyle in Rome, by visiting tombs of the martyrs and the Apostles in the catacombs. Around 366 AD he was baptised by Pope Liberius and left the city as a serious scholar with a penchant for Latin literature.

He travelled to Trier where he studied theology and copied Tyrannius Rufinus’ commentary on the Psalms and the treatise named “De synodis”. After this he moved to Aquileia on the shores of the Adriatic. His journey eventually took him to Antioch in northern Syria via Thrace and Asia Minor. In Antioch he fell ill and had a vision of being called before a tribunal of God. In this tribunal he was accused of being a Ciceronian (a follower of the famous Roman orator) rather than a Christian and was consequently whipped. This vision made such an impression on him that he vowed to never read, nor own Pagan literature ever again. He was attracted to the ascetic lifestyle and withdrew to the desert of Chalcis – here he devoted his time to studying and writing. The subject of the former was Hebrew and the latter were letters to Jewish Christians in Antioch. He also copied a Hebrew gospel and translated parts of this into Greek. This gospel came to be known as the Gospel of Matthew. Even though this was a testing time for Jerome, correspondence, prayer, and fasting sustained him. Here he also became involved in scholarly disputes on the nature of God and Jesus, and was even suspected of heresy.

Throughout his life he resisted the Catholic Church’s attempts to ordain him, however on his return to Antioch in 378 AD or 379 AD he submitted and was ordained by Bishop Paulinus. Jerome maintained that it should not interfere with his pursuit of an ascetic lifestyle.

The journey continues

After his time in Antioch he spent two years in Constantinople to study scripture under Gregory Nazianzen and then three years in Rome as secretary to Pope Damasus I. Eventually St. Jerome filled a prominent position in the Pope’s council and was invited to the synod of 328 AD.

Pope Damasus I commissioned St. Jerome to revise the Latin Bible. His revision was based on the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. St. Jerome also produced an updated version of the Psalms, which in turn was based on the Septuagint (the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament). Eventually he translated most of what was later to be known as the Vulgate, adopted by the Catholic Church as the standard Latin version of the Bible.

Jerome and his brother returned to Antioch in 385 AD and undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the holy sites in Galilee, and finally Egypt, where the catechist Didymus the Blind interpreted Hosea and reminisced about Anthony the Great. In 388 AD he returned to Bethlehem, where he worked on scriptural commentaries, dialogues, and polemics until his death on 30 September 420 AD.

Principal works

Jerome is primarily remembered for his Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible. During his lifetime he engaged in various polemics with heavyweights in the early Church: from Origen, Rufinus and John of Jerusalem to St. Augustine, Jovian, Pelagius and Plagius. He revised many significant Bible books, such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Chronicles, and Job. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica* he had “a predilection for allegorical interpretation”. His commentary of Ecclesiastes however, is viewed as a milestone in exegesis because it is the first Latin commentary based on the original Hebrew text. This same encyclopaedia also states that his best commentaries are on the prophets of the Old Testament.


Jerome will be remembered as the quintessential scholar with a deep understanding of the classics, the Bible, and the Christian tradition. He was a favoured subject of artists during the Renaissance who frequently and incorrectly dressed him in the robes of a cardinal. That monument of translation, the Vulgate, demonstrated the influence of a translation of a major work on world history.

* https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Jerome

  herman.botha@foliotranslations.com botha   Jul 05, 2018   History   0 Comment Read More

Frontier Interpreters: Krotoa, Malintzin, and Pocahontas

In this blog I compare biographical details of three legendary interpreters of the colonial era. Even though these women found themselves in different corners of the world their lives share striking similarities. In all three cases they were confronted with European colonial powers and had to walk a fine line between two radically different cultures. A common pattern emerges as their personal lives are plotted against the backdrop of colonial conquest.


La Malinche, otherwise known as Malintzin, was born sometime between 1496 and 1501 on the Mexican Gulf Coast. As a stepchild she was given to people from Xicalango who in turn gave the child to the Tobascans. After an altercation with the Spanish the Tobascans yet again handed her over as a slave along with some 19 other women on 1 April 1519. She was baptised and took the name Marina.

Her proficiency in two native languages, Mayan and Nahuatl, made her invaluable as an interpreter for Hernán Cortés the conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire. Her use as an interpreter to quell a rebellion in Honduras between 1524 and 1526 suggests that she had a working knowledge of dialects much further afield. It is during this expedition that she married Juan Jaramillo, a Spanish nobleman. She also shifted between different language registers and tones between certain indigenous tribes. Choosing a formal register could in certain contexts give the impression that she was of noble descent.

After learning of a plot between the Aztecs and the Cholulans to destroy Cortés’ small fleet, she informed Cortés who subsequently massacred many Cholulans. In this way her name became synonymous with “traitor” among some of the locals. The Tlaxcalans however, who formed an alliance with Cortés against Moctezuma, revered her. Her relationship with Cortés produced a child hence she is known as a founding figure of the Mexican Nation and the mother of a new race.


Pocahontas enters the historical record in 1607 when she allegedly saved the life of John Smith. Her specific birth year is not known, but based on Smith’s recollections it is estimated to be 1596. She was the daughter of Chief Powhatan, paramount chief of Tsenacommacah in Tidewater, Virginia.

In 1613 she was captured and held for ransom during a period of unrest between the English and the Indians. She converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. Historians speculate that this name choice was not fortuitous ─ Rebecca was the mother of two distinct nations and maybe Pocahontas viewed herself or was viewed in the same light. In 1614 she married John Rolfe and a year later they had a son named Thomas Rolfe. She died at Gravesend on the River Thames after a visit to London in 1617 at the age of 20 or 21.

Even though she never acted as a translator or interpreter, she also found herself in the precarious space between an indigenous culture and an aggressive colonial power. When given the opportunity to return to her people after being captured for a year she chose to remain with the English, citing the fact that her father valued her life less than the ransom demands, which included tools and weapons.


As is the case with the previous two women, Krotao, born in the Cape in 1643 as a member of the Goringhaicona (or Strandlopers), found herself among European colonists from a very young age. At the age of 12 she was either taken by Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch East India Company’s first governor at the Cape, or given by her uncle Harry who had a long history as an interpreter and postal worker for English and Dutch ships. As a servant in the Van Riebeeck household she learnt Dutch and was instructed in Christianity by Van Riebeeck’s wife, Maria de la Quellerie.

On 3 May 1662 she was baptised and given the name Eva. Two years later when she married Peter Havgard, a Danish surgeon called “Pieter van Meerhof” by the Dutch. This first mixed marriage between the colonists and the indigenous in Southern Africa produced two children.

Krotoa’s relationship with her original and her adopted cultures is complicated. Her intimate knowledge of Dutch and Khoi culture, her proficiency in the relevant languages, and her close relationship with Van Riebeeck made her the ideal choice as an interpreter and mediator. Even though she was instrumental in ending the war between the Dutch and the Khoi, she was often mistrusted by both sides.

After Van Riebeeck’s departure and the deaths of Havgard, and Harry, her life took a turn for the worse, and she eventually found herself banished to Robben Island for alcoholism and immoral behaviour. She died on 29 July 1674 and was buried in the church at the Fort.

Variations on a theme

A specific pattern emerges in all three cases. A young, native girl is taken from her family and tribe, assumes a new name, culture, and religion, marries a European, and becomes embroiled in a clash of civilisations. It is tempting to think of these women as unwitting bystanders or passive go-betweens, but in her essay “Malintzin, Pocahontas, and Krotoa: Indigenous Women and Myth Models of the Atlantic World” (Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 6(3)) Pamela F. Scully presents evidence to the contrary ─ agency, astute negotiation skills, and the ability to see the merits of cooperation between the indigenous and the colonial powers. The few moments of peace and cooperation between the Europeans and the indigenous on the eastern and western shores of the Atlantic, would not have been possible without the language skills and empathic talents of these three women.

  herman.botha@foliotranslations.com botha   May 29, 2018   History   0 Comment Read More