Guest Voices: Moon, Months, and Language

Our guest post this week is by Dr. Claire Flanagan, Director of the Johannesburg Planetarium, University of the Witwatersrand.

Greetings from the Planetarium in Johannesburg, the biggest and busiest city in South Africa! We had huge fun this week investigating a simple thing: the month.

We’re designing a new show here for our grade 4 – 7 learners – about 30,000 of them visit us each year – and we thought we’d include some local culture in a “moon-phases” lesson.   Our theory is: the month was invented by people watching the moon go through its phases every 29.5 days, so everyone invented and named their own set of 29- and 30-day months.  You can’t make up a 365-day year out of these “lunar months” – they’re too short – so nowadays most people use the well-known January, February, etc.  But do the original month names still exist in South Africa?

Themba (left) studies Environmental Science at Wits University; Claire is the Planetarium astronomer, Karabo and Ray (right) are Planetarium interns.

In one hour, they came across at least ten different languages on campus, including French. “March” in French is “Mars,” which surprised Themba, whose home language is xiTsonga.  Ray was relieved to meet other students who also only know the months in English – English is the main language of teaching here in South Africa, and most people would use the English words for months, even when speaking a different language.

However, the mission was successful, and the group returned to the Planetarium with an hour of video footage and lists of months in eight languages.  Ray settled in to extract a selection of students from the footage, while Karabo set off to find out what the month names mean in his home language, seSotho.

The months in Venda, spoken in parts of northern South Africa.

Karabo’s task generated some lengthy and heated discussion – the three people he consulted debated fiercely over, for example, the meaning of “Pherekgong” (January), eventually agreeing on “the month of cooking chickens.”

Most of the month names we came across involve activities connected to the different times of the year – in seSotho, cooking the chickens is followed by planting the seeds, sprouting of the shoots, cooking the corn, and then laughing at the birds (who are struggling to eat the hardened corn).  As Karabo said, it’s like a story of the seasonal cycle of life, which we think would be perfect for our new Planetarium show!

Watch Ray’s selection of students:

4 thoughts on “Guest Voices: Moon, Months, and Language

  1. What a fascinating topic! Such a great way to give multiple points of entry to people from a variety of backgrounds, and make astrology accessible to diverse audiences (especially children, as the author intends).

    Even in the ostensibly monolithic Arabic-speaking countries of North Africa, there are marked differences in the names of the months — owing partly to the varying experiences/impositions of colonialism — and in some countries, the post-colonial governments renamed the months yet again (e.g. the Qadhafi government in Libya). See:

    • Makes me curious to know what months are called in my language.

      This curiosity lead to interesting discoveries, as this video is related to the post I thought I’d share it. This is an interview with South African writer Mduduzi Walter Masilela in which he talks about keeping the culture and language of his Ndebela people alive. He particularly mentions learning the name of the months in local languages as opposed to English.

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