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ProfON Wednesday 24 May 2017, in the fourth of the seminar series presented by 2017 Jias Writing Fellows, Prof Pamela Maseko of Rhodes University spoke on ‘Language as a source of revitalisation and reclamation of indigenous epistemologies: Contesting assumptions and re-imagining women identities in Xhosa society’.Maseko provided the following background:‘In studies on gender relations in South Africa, one of the widely held assumptions about Xhosa society is that women are invibilised and are perpetually subservient to menfolk. Scholars maintaining this assumption use the western conceptualisation of gender relations where the physical body is always linked to social positions. Amongst amaXhosa, gender is not used to explain social relations. Instead, social relations are organised around age, rank, social eminence gained by ability or achievement and kinship, not around body-type.

‘In humanities and social science studies, the use of language to study human experiences has not been fully explored. This is especially so in societies whose history of literacy and literary heritage is not as extensive, for example, as that of Indo-European languages. Yet, in addition to disciplines such as history, sociology, archaeology and anthropology for example, language can be used to provide evidence on how societies made sense of their world and inadvertently, how this reflected in their past socio-cultural practices. The words, the grammar of the language and the language discourse reflect the socio-cultural context of the people’s interactions, including what they appreciated and despised.

‘Because of the tendency by modern society to elevate and value written knowledge, the use of linguistic evidence as a source of recovery and construction of the past is especially significant in societies to whom writing, the description of their language and the interpretation of their sociocultural practices came through others, as in the case of Africa to whom writing, as we know it today, came through the West.

‘Using linguistic evidence from the literary archives written in the 19th century by early isiXhosa literates who used newspapers to tell an African experience from an indigenous perspective, this presentation examines how equity and equality between women and men is captured in the lexicon of the language. I show that isiXhosa is a non-gendered language and that if language is a social institution, then it should be considered in making sense of the past, and providing counter-arguments to contemporary dominant narratives in the disciplines in the academy about woman in Xhosa society.’

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