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Developing anatomical terms in an African language.

From a medical perspective, patients prefer information in their own language, but in Africa the development of such technical language has been neglected. In Zimbabwe, clinical information in ChiShona involves inexact terminology, switching language during speech, i.e. code-switching, and inaccurate examples, whereas in English the information given can be as specific and detailed as the patient wants or understands. Most citizens do not speak English as their first language and may not be able to express adequately their illness experience. On the other hand, most health professionals lack the terminology in their African language for the information being delivered, mainly because technical knowledge develops through formal school education in English rather than through the home African language. (1) So both communities would benefit from the development of the language.

The use of mother tongue as the medium of instruction at secondary and tertiary level is widely debated. Many students and their teachers translate between English and mother tongue, with varying degrees of success. (2) Students are under pressure to learn to think and explain themselves in English, failure of which is seen as a barrier to accomplishment at the international level. However, students feel they would learn faster if some technical information was available in their mother tongue or some explanations and examples used local sources. Strong evidence supports accelerated learning when mother-tongue language is used alongside the language of learning. (3,4) In addition, exclusive use of a dominant language stunts the growth and elaboration of lower level languages. Using the language in class as a dual language, through secondary and tertiary learning, has been identified as a way of bringing it into high-level contact with concepts in the dominant language, thus accelerating the development of its vocabulary. (5,6)

For these reasons, developing African languages to be able to function at a technical level and to disperse technical information to a lay level,

thereby improving access to knowledge, has become an important area of language advocacy. During the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic many language communities have found themselves struggling to communicate health information to their spokespeople and to overcome terminology considered vulgar and 'embarrassing'. (7)

This paper describes one approach of developing the language using the ChiShona language spoken in Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries.

ChiShona language

ChiShona is one of eight officially recognised languages in Zimbabwe and represents a cluster of languages spoken by about 80% of Zimbabweans. It is mutually intelligible with related languages in Mozambique. TjiKalanga in Zimbabwe and Botswana is closely related to ChiShona but is considered a separate language. There are more than 12 million first-language ChiShona speakers. It has the status of a national language, together with IsiNdebele. It is widely used in public discussion, on the radio and television, a print newspaper and has a body of literature. In the domain of education it is used as language of instruction in the lower levels of primary education, and is taught as a subject up to tertiary level in several universities in the country. Several Shona-English dictionaries have been published and the first monolingual dictionary was published in 2001. In 2004 a dictionary of ChiShona medical terms was published. (8)

Terminology development

Languages use a variety of methods for acquiring new terms. New words in ChiShona have been assimilated from English, Nguni, Afrikaans and Portuguese over the centuries. Word borrowing is one of the methods used in terminology development, for example use of the word 'wadhi from 'ward'. Other methods include loan translation, semantic extension and compounding (examples in Table 1).

Loan translations and semantic extensions are used extensively as a way of using the language's own resources rather than borrowing. This also generates root words that can be used as compound units in systematic terminology development. As with English it is easier to explain and be understood when the lay terms or the analogies used mean the same as the technical terms, so that as the explanation deepens (through questioning) the message is not lost. There is always a dialogue between lay and technical terminology. Explaining what a facet joint is to a patient with back pain calling it a tsitsopfundo (tsitso--facet and pfundo--joint) is much simpler than attempting to use the borrowed term faseti jointi. As more African terminology is used it will become familiar to the public who have become familiar with English terminology. The English-speaking public has begun to use technical terms as the educational level has increased and more technical information is available in the public domain. An additional benefit when using the language's own resources is that knowledge already embedded in the language is not lost, but becomes available and used in a new way. (9)

This paper focuses on word compounding as a way to demonstrate the language's ability to form new technical terms, using anatomical terms as a model. Table 2 shows how the compound units are derived for use in the terms shown in Table 3, as developed by the author.

Medical dictionaries

Medical dictionaries record the words in current use. Necessarily the lists consist of words that enter the language through all available methods including borrowing, translating, semantic extension, etc. The KiSwahili dictionary, Kamusi ya Tiba, aimed primarily at health professionals, uses English headwords with KiSwahili definitions and explanations. (10) The English-Xhosa Companion is for communication between health professionals and the lay public. Most of the vocabulary is original Xhosa terms, loan translations and semantic extensions with few borrowed words. (11) The ChiShona Duramazwi reUrapi neUtano (Dictionary of Medical and Health Terms) is aimed at Shona-speaking health professionals. It contains headwords in ChiShona with definitions in ChiShona. It is not the function of dictionaries to determine how new words are to be coined or used, although they may legitimise a new word for some time. In the final analysis it is the users or language speakers who determine whether a word will be used and remain in the lexicon.


Many terms can be generated in ways which carry with them some of the meaning of their original source words, similar to the method used with Latin and Greek terms in medical terminology to generate new words, e.g. cardiology = cardi + ology (heart + study of). Compound noun formation is one of several different methods of developing new terminology for language.

Linguists who have led dictionary development in ChiShona and other African languages have emphasised the importance of developing terminology in African languages. Terminology development in science and technology is more difficult because many African scientists may have no formal training in their mother tongue or another African language and language specialists usually have little background in sciences. Thus collaboration between scientists and linguists is essential. Language teaching needs to come back into medical schools, as Latin and Greek were taught in the past in Europe, to raise the level at which African languages are used by first-language speakers so that terminology development in these domains can fully engage with subject expertise. Currently it is used to improve language skills for communication between health professionals from different language groups and patients. 'Dual' language use at tertiary level has been used and explored as a way of ensuring that African languages have a presence at tertiary level in non-language subjects and this has contributed to language development. (12-14) Language develops through being used. African languages development can be promoted further by:

* using them in the tertiary environment as 'dual' language teaching, as with other languages such as Afrikaans in South Africa

* developing space where African language use is promoted in publications and scientific meetings

* increasing the use of African languages in medical education so that African culture may be less 'other' or marginalised.


Developing African languages so that they can be used in all the domains of language use is increasingly seen as urgent. The experience of few languages, such as Swahili and Afrikaans, that have had the political and organisational support to make significant progress, must be extended to others. There are many approaches to terminology development, such as word compounding, that mine the rich source of knowledge already embedded in the African languages. With Bantu languages, compounding can generate an endless vocabulary with similar systematic potential to the use of Latin and Greek in other European languages. Science and technology, including medicine, have tended to lag behind, but if scientists and linguists collaborate in this task, our languages in Africa have great possibilities.

(1.) Mbananga N, Mniki S, Oelefse A, et al. A model for developing medical terms in indigenous languages: a step towards consumer informatics in South Africa. In: Fieschi M, Coiera E, Yu-Chan JL, eds. Proceedings of the 11th World Congress on Medical Informatics. Pt 2. Washington: IOS Press: 2004: 1216-1218.

(2.) Brock-Utne B, Hollmarsdottir H. Language policies and practices in Tanzania and South Africa: problems and challenges. Int J Educ Dev 2004;24:67-83.

(3.) Van Rooyen D, Jordaan H. An aspect of language for academic purposes in secondary education: complex sentence comprehension by learners in an integrated Gauteng school. South African Journal of Education 2009;29:271-287.

(4.) Pluddemann P, Braam D, October M, Wababa Z. Dual-medium and parallel-medium schooling in the Western Cape: from default to design. PRAESA Occasional Paper No17. Cape Town, UCT: 2004.

(5.) Ramani E, Kekana T, Modiba M, Joseph M. Terminology development versus concept development through discourse: insights from a dual-medium BA degree. Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies 2007;25:207-223.

(6.) Obanya P. Learning in, with and from first language. PRAESA Occasional Paper No 19. Cape Town, UCT: 2004.

(7.) Kruger A. Translating public information texts on health issues into languages of limited diffusion in South Africa. In: Valdeon RA, ed. Translating Information. Oviedo: University of Oviedo Press, 2008: 151-168.

(8.) Mpofu N, Chimhundu H, Mangoya E, Chabata E. Duramazwi reUrapi neUtano ALLEX Project University of Zimbabwe and Mambo Press. 2004.

(9.) Dlodlo TS. Science nomenclature in Africa: Physics in Nguni. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 1999;36:321-331.

(10.) Mwita AMA, Mwansoko HJM. Kamusi ya Tiba. Dar es Salaam: Chuo Kikuu cha Dar es Salaam, 2003.

(11.) Kirsch B, Skorge S, Matsikiza N. An English-Xhosa Companion for Health Care Professionals. Cape Town: Juta, 1996.

(12.) Musau PM. Adapting an African language as a medium of instruction at the university: the case of Kiswahili in Kenya. Poznan Studies in Contemporary Linguistics 2001;37:127-137.

(13.) Du Plessis T. Perspectives on managing Afrikaans and English as 'equal' languages of learning and teaching at the University of the Free State. Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies 2007;26:315-332.

(14.) Blaauw J. Sourcing and maintaining a pool of suitably skilled interpreters for educational interpreting at a tertiary institution. Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies 2008;26:301-303.

Dr Farai D Madzimbamuto is senior lecturer in the Department of Anaesthesia and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Botswana School of Medicine, Gaborone, Botswana
Table 1. Methods of terminology formation

Terminology word
Formation method     Explanation               Example

Borrowing            A term is borrowed with   oparesheni: operation
                     its meaning and           dhokoteraldhokota:
                     'Africanised'             doctor

Loan translation     Form and meaning of the   kahuku mhezi (kahuku):
                     word in the source        chicken pox [huku--
                     language is kept but      chicken, mhezi--rash]
                     the word is translated    ronga mhuri: family
                     using words from the      planning [ronga--plan
                     target language           (v), mhuri--family (n)]
                                               pfundohudyu: hip joint
                                               [pfundo--joint, hudyu-
                                               -hip] duramazwi:
                                               dictionary [dura--
                                               store (n) or explain
                                               (v), mazwi--words]

Semantic extension   The meaning of a word     kucheka: to cut [now
                     is modified or extended   also means to operate]
                     to accommodate a new      kuvhiya: originally
                     meaning or use            just meant to cut up an
                                               animal. Now also means
                                               'to operate or to

Compounding          Two or more word are      mheta [folds] makumbo
                     joined to form one        [legs], which describes
                                               mhetamakumbo [polio]

(v)--verb, (n)--noun

Table 2. Vertebral anatomical terms

Anatomical structure   Descriptors in Shona          Compounding units

spinal column          muzongoza (sing)              muzongoza
                       mizongoza (pl)

vertebra               zongoza (sing)                zongozo
                       mazongoza (pl)

body                   tsiga--putting one object     tsigo--
                       on top of another             mutumbi
                       mutsigozongoza (the load
                       bearing, 'carrying' part of
                       vertebra) mutumbi--body

pedicle                bango or mbiru are the        bango
                       poles that hold up an arch    mbiru
                       or roof mbiru yezongoza

arch                   chingo is arch                chingo

spinous process        tsuvi is spire of building    tsuvi

lamina                 nhungo is a roof pole, when   nhungo
                       several strapped together
                       form a lattice

transverse process     chinjiko is 'transverse' or   chinjiko
                       'across'                      nyanga
                       nyanga is 'horn'

tubercle               bundulpundu is a swelling     bundu

foramen                buri is an opening            buri
                       mwena is a canal              mwena
                       guru is a cavern              guru

sacrum                 hungunyo (or gungunyo) is     hungunyo
                       sacral bone

articular facets       tsitso is a footing or        tsitso
                       where one thing steps on
                       another, and tsitsa is to
                       step on another

intervertebral discs   hata is a pad or cushion      hata
                       such as is interposed
                       between loads

notches [vertebral     nazho is a notch              nazho

(anatomical) planes    usandara (husandara) means    usandara
                       flatness and uchechetere      uchechetere
                       (huchechetere) means 'same
                       level' and are used to
                       refer to planes or
                       flatness. These are key
                       terms in anatomical

anterior               mberi means 'forward',        mberi
                       kumberi 'towards the front'

ventral                muhamba means 'the            hamba
                       underside of an animal'

posterior              seri means 'behind', kuseri   seri
                       towards the back'

superior               soro means 'headward',        soro
                       kusoro 'towards the head'

inferior               zasi 'downward' or uswe       zasi or uswe

lateral                divi or rutivi means          divi
                       sidewards', kudivi 'towards
                       the side

medial                 pakati 'middle', neche        mukati
                       mukati towards midline

Table 3. Derived compound terms

Structure in
anatomical english                  Shona compound units

vertebral foramen      buri         foramen vertebra

transverse foramen     buri         foramen transverse

vertebral canal        mwena        canal
                       zongoza      vertebra

sacral canal           mwena        canal
                       guru         cavern
                       hungunyo     sacral

intervertebral canal   buri         foramen
                       nazho        notch

superior articular     tsitso       articular
process                soro         superior

inferior articular     tsitso       articular
process                zasi         inferior

transverse articular   tsitso       articular
process                chinjiko     transverse

transverse process     nyanga       process transverse

transverse tubercle    pundu        tubercle
                       chinjika     transverse

posterior tubercle     pundu        tubercle
anterior tubercle      posterior    seri
                       anterior     mberi

spinous process (of    tsuvi        spire
vertebra)              (zongoza)    (vertebrae)

spinous tubercle       pundu        tubercle
                       tsuvi        spire

Structure in
anatomical english     Shona compound term   Shona 'back translation'

vertebral foramen      burizongoza           'opening' in the vertebra

transverse foramen     burichinjiko or       'opening' in the 'cross'
                       burijinjiko           bone

vertebral canal        mwenamuzongoza        'canal' in the vertebral

sacral canal           mwenahungunyo or      'canal' in sacrum or
                       guruhungunyo          'cavern' in sacrum

intervertebral canal   burirenazho           'opening' of notches

superior articular     tsitsosoro            footing,
process                                      upper (superior)

inferior articular     tsitsozasi            footing,
process                                      lower (inferior)

transverse articular   tsitsochinjiko        footing,
process                                      transverse (cross) bone

transverse process     chinjiko, jinjiko     cross bone
                       nyangachinjiko        cross bone projection

transverse tubercle    punduchinjiko         swelling on cross bone

posterior tubercle     punduseri             back swelling
anterior tubercle      pundumberi            front swelling

spinous process (of    tsuvizongoza          spire on vertebra

spinous tubercle       pundutsuvi            swelling on spire
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Author:Madzimbamuto, Farai D.
Publication:South African Medical Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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