STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The second-oldest colonial city in South Africa, Port Elizabeth, has a new name. That new name mixes some of the unique linguistics of a widely spoken language known as Xhosa. And yet, as NPR's Eyder Peralta reports, many South Africans are struggling to pronounce the new name.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Soon after the government unveiled the new name, I wrote it down on a piece of paper and took it to a fancy mall in Johannesburg. But first, an apology to South Africans for butchering the Xhosa language. Anyway, I find Mpho Ramagase (ph) and Anga Manxiwa (ph) walking back from lunch. I offer them my notebook.
Can I show it to you?
MPHO RAMAGASE: Yeah, please show it to us. He's Xhosa, so he'll say it more for you.
PERALTA: They take a look, and they freeze, even though Anga is a Xhosa.
ANGA MANXIWA: Wait, let me call my cousin. She stays in PE and will tell me how to pronounce it.
PERALTA: She would know.
RAMAGASE: He doesn't know.
MANXIWA: I grew up in Joburg.
PERALTA: So - but why? Why is this so hard?
MANXIWA: It's because of the beginning.
RAMAGASE: The support of the Q because usually the Q is supported by a specific letter.
PERALTA: South Africa has 11 official languages and isiXhosa is tricky because it has three different clicks represented by the letters X, C and Q, all of which are usually paired with a vowel like qa, qe, qi, qo, qu. But this particular name sounds complicated because the Q is preceded by a G, and the name ends with a guttural H. So here is how it's spelled - G-Q-E-B-E-R-H-A. Anga talks to his cousin, and luckily for me, he gets to pronounce it for you.
MANXIWA: It's Gqeberha.
PERALTA: You got to do it slowly.
PERALTA: His friend, Mpho, rolls his eyes. The name change is meant to commemorate historically marginalized South African communities. But Mpho feels the new name instead marginalizes South Africans who don't speak isiXhosa, and soon, he jokes, even Johannesburg will lose its name.
RAMAGASE: Like, Joburg will be changed to (vocalizing).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They will never do that.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They can't do that.
RAMAGASE: Where are you going? To (vocalizing). What's that? The old Joburg. What?
SOMIKAZI DEYI: This is a moment where decolonization is the narrative.
PERALTA: That is Somikazi Deyi who teaches African languages at the University of Cape Town. This name change, she says, is part of a social movement to break with South Africa's colonial past. It started six years ago with students who demanded the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the white supremacist settler. And now decolonization has moved to city streets and airport names.
DEYI: It is reviving - it's revitalizing someone's identity that has been buried and forgotten.
PERALTA: Deyi recalls how the name of the airport in Port Elizabeth was changed to Chief David Stuurman International Airport. Few South Africans knew who Stuurman was. Turns out, he fought colonialists. He escaped twice from Robben Island, and he was eventually exiled to Australia. She learned much more about Stuurman when the name changed, and now historians like her are researching the etymology of Gqeberha, which is also a river in the Eastern Cape.
DEYI: This is part of us. This is our country. This is our blood. Because we are already beginning to have a dialogue to find out who Gqeberha is.
PERALTA: Back at the mall, more friends show up, and Mpho asks them to pronounce PE's new name.
MANXIWA: Yeah, your turn.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Qembah (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Qembarrah (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No, I don't know.
RAMAGASE: It's the new word for PE.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm sorry, I didn't think this was African at all.
PERALTA: They laugh, they pull out their phones to learn a bit of history about Gqeberha, and suddenly, the new name has served its purpose. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.