OPINION: I don’t mind my language



To my fellow English speaking South Africans, English is not my mother tongue. So no, I don’t speak my African languages to only skinner about you.  My language is way more sophisticated than that. It is bold, descriptive, romantic and fierce.

It seems to me that there is a taboo around speaking vernacular languages in academic spaces. If you don’t speak with a Model C accent, you are viewed as a not so intelligent sub human species with a primitive understanding of the world. Its been 39 years since black students protested against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools, yet we have academic institutions like Stellenbosch University who blatantly refuse to welcome and facilitate language diversity among students.

I used to chuckle whenever I’d hear students say, “I go to Virrts”. But now it makes me sad to hear it. Sad to see my fellow African Witsies morph their speech to fit into a nonsensical and uniform mould of what an educated black person should sound like. Language should be a tool to communicate with a diverse people not a weapon used to exclude students from academic discourse.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting the author of the Sesotho dictionary, Zulumathabo Zulu. I was going to write articles in the seSotho language for the first time and he was going to be my guide through it. I was in awe of the man’s accomplishments but at the same time I was intimidated by him for two reasons. Firstly, the seSotho I speak  has been infused with the other five languages that I use, so it’s not as sophisticated as his. Secondly, the man has written a whole seSotho dictionary and its focus is on my long time nemesis- MATHEMATICS!

The first question I asked him was how I as a young journalist could effectively use his book to write human interest stories? He smiled and eloquently explained that, “in seSotho, mathematics is derived from the ordinary and mundane concepts that people already understand.” He flipped through a copy of his book and randomly stopped on a page with the word ‘motshetshe’ listed on it. “As in the crease that is ironed down a pair of formal trousers?,” I naively asked. “Exactly, the angle that is formed by the crease is used in our language to explain the mathematical concept of angles and arches.” he replied.

He explained that African people have mathematical knowledge which is integrated as part of their lives, unlike the Western communities, where mathematics is more abstract. I experienced pure enlightenment and joy as I came to realise  how beautifully simple and complex my language is. It became so vividly apparent to me in that moment, that my language transcends barriers, it is versatile and far more refined than society gives it credit for.

Nasal speech does not make you sound more intelligent and speaking your mother tongue doesn’t make you stupid. Our language is an important part of our heritage, something that comes or belongs to one by reason of birth. If we are not able to speak it and learn in our native tongues, I fear it may end up on the endangered species list.

So no, I don’t speak my mother tongue to just skinner about you. I choose to speak the languages that I do to be more imaginative, passionate and practical than that. 

Natural selection hits the right note

MUSIC AND LYRICS: Ritesh Ajoodha's research on using Darwin's Theory of Evolution to compose music will be published in IGI Global's Encyclopaedia of Information Science and Technology. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

MUSIC AND LYRICS: Ritesh Ajoodha’s research on using Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to compose music will be published in IGI Global’s Encyclopaedia of Information Science and Technology. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

Music is an art, but throw in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection and you could scientifically create a melody pleasing to the ear. Computer science student Ritesh Ajoodha has combined his love for science and music to develop a novel approach to composing.

Evolutionary music

Ajoodha said that concepts of evolution and genetic mutations in humans could be applied to music. “You have a bunch of random melodies generated in space and we have them cross [as if they were reproducing].”

The outcome is a cross between the melodies, with possible evolutionary operations occurring. The pieces are evaluated by the computer programme, and “the good pieces survive and the bad ones will be eliminated from the space”.

If this process continues for hundreds of generations, “we can produce something aesthetically pleasing”, he said. Ajoodha ran this algorithm for up to 500 generations of music and managed to generate a sample. “The music sounded natural,” he said.

But, computers cannot compose creatively. “A computer doesn’t have emotion … so we need to mimic the process using genetic algorithms to generate creativity because the computer has none.”

Under the supervision of Richard Klein and Maria Jakovljevic, Ajoodha mechanically recreated the process of a classical composition. The positive outcome of his research means the results will be published in the third edition of IGI Global’s Encyclopaedia of Information Science and Technology at the end of July.

Love of music

Ajoodha was taught to play the harmonium, by his mother at the age of eight. He spent six years with his piano teacher Andrew Francis, and later Diane Coutts, who is regarded as one of the best piano teachers and performers in South Africa.

“The biggest thing I learnt from her about music was that it is very mechanical,” Ajoodha said. He said this contributed to his honours work.

“Since I already had a structured background in music theory, it became easy to combine my two interests.”

Ajoodha did a BSc majoring in Computer Science and Mathematics and worked on his music qualifications parallel to his studies at Wits. “Since I already had a structured background in music theory, it became easy to combine my two interests.”

His current research is also inspired by music. It is another novel method to automatically detect genres and to improve information retrieval systems in computers.

Having completed his honours in computer science with distinction, Ajoodha plans on completing his PhD thesis on automated music genre classification before working.

Although he denies being a musical prodigy, when he is not playing the piano, he turns his attention to the violin. He is fond of video games, but not Guitar Hero. “I have the real deal,” he joked.

When asked about his greatest achievements, he said, “Every day I like to push the limits and achieve something new. This morning I learnt an amazing classical piece by Felix Mendelssohn called ‘Rondo Capriccioso’. Currently this is my greatest achievement, however, it will probably change tomorrow.”

As for his musical role models, he said, “All the people I look up to are dead, with the exception of my phenomenal piano teacher”, listing Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov and Chopin.