A couple of bloggers with an interest in language have asked about the the origin and meaning of the word “makwerekwere”. It is a slang word for foreigners, and especially illegal immigrants, which I used in a post about the anti-immigrant violence that has been taking place over the last couple of months. Both Languagehat and Far Outliers wanted to know which language it comes from, and I was unable to say.
As far as I know it is a piece of interlinguistic slang. It is modified according to the language of the speaker. A Zulu-speaker might say amakwerekwere, a Sotho-speaker might say makwerekwere and an English-speaker might drop the prefix altogether and say kwerekwere.
I haven’t seen a convincing account of its origin. One suggestion was that it was like the Greek varvari, from which the English word “barbarian” comes (and the name Barbara). It has been suggested that varvari represents the strange sounds of foreign languages to Greeks. The Dutch called the people they found in the Western Cape Hottentoten for a similar reason — it was how they described the languages with click consonants that the local people spoke. So, it is said, kwerekwere represents the sounds of a foreign language.
If that is so, it may have originated in Zulu, where the “r” sound is foreign, and “l” is used instead. My own speculation (and it is nothing more that speculation) is that it may be derived from kwelakwela, an old slang word for a Black Maria (which is an even older slang term for a police van that carries arrested persons to the police station or jail). Kwelakwela is derived from the Zulu word khwela, meaning “climb”, and policemen used to say to people they had arrested (usually for infringing the pass laws) “Kwelakwela”, meaning “Get in! Get in!” Bus conductors also used to say it to passengers if the bus was running late, urging people to hurry up and board the bus.
Perhaps kwerekwere has developed from that usage signifying illegal aliens being rounded up and arrested before being deported.
Another possibility (and equally speculative) is that it could come from isikhwele, meaning sexual jealousy, and thus it could be related to the accusation that “foreigners steal our women”.
That, of course, leads to another thought. The xenophobia that we have seen over the last few months seems to be a male thing. Could that be because most foreigners are male?
If we go back a little more than a century, we can find similar distrust of foreigners by the government of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), and President Kruger, especially, seemed to distrust them. Back then they were called Uitlanders (outlanders) with a capital U, and that xenophobia led to the prolonged bout of white-on-white violence that historians now call the Second Anglo-Boer War.
Another theory I read about the origin of kwerekwere (I forget where) is that it is derived from korekore, a cultural and linguistic group in Zimbabwe.
A comment on the Languagehat posting suggeted that kwerekwere is pronounced “queer queer”, which is misleading. It is more like “query query”, but with the y replaced with the “e” sound in “bed”. But that led to an interesting discovery, for me, at any rate. When I tried to say “query query” fast, with the English “r” sound, I got all tongue-tied. If I used the rolled “r” used in African languages (as in the Herero werawera, meaning “shine”) it is possible to say it much more quickly. That suggests a possible Tswana origin. Tswana has lots of “r” sounds, unlike Zulu, where “r” is used mainly to deliberately indicate something as foreign, or Xhosa, where “r” is a voiced guttural, like the German.
Any other theories about the origin of makwerekwere out there?