Scott Hanselman

The definition of Ubuntu - Marketing the new Linux Distro

April 25, 2005 Comment on this post [11] Posted in Africa
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I'm digging Ubuntu, the new Linux distribution. It's amazing. It just works, and I could really see installing in on a few older machines I've got an not having to worry too much about the users. I'm always looking for older laptops to send to Zimbabwe, but I always struggle with the software licensing. To get WindowsXP+Office isn't possible, so it often ends up being Windows 98+OpenOffice. Even XP+OpenOffice would be nice, but $99 for XP is a little steep for a free computer. I think this Linux distro is perfect for the average Joe.

That said, I'm not sure what I think about their marketing schtick around the use of the word Ubuntu. Here's what they say:

"Ubuntu" is an ancient African word, meaning "humanity to others". Ubuntu also means "I am what I am because of who we all are". The Ubuntu Linux distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world.

So I have a few problems with this.

There are 54 African countries. Ubuntu is a Zulu and Xhosa word, from the Bantu language family. At least say "Southern Africa." While a half-dozen African countries would understand the word, don't include the whole continent. I am continually shocked - especially on American news - that Africa is refered to as if it were a country and not a continent with 1/5 of the planet's total land mass. Ubuntu's benefactor is South African and should know better.

Ancient? I suppose it depends on what ancient means. It was popularized in the last 20 years by Desmond Tutu, but the roots are as old as the Bantu language family. I suppose that qualifies as ancient. However, I'm not sure about using "ancient" in this context as a way to increase the awe-factor. Mind you, I dig the distro, I'm just critiquing (not yet criticizing) the usage.

"People" is an ancient European word, meaning "more than one person"

You get the idea. Others have said Ubuntu means "the art of being human." With my very limited knowledge of such things, I'd say a simplier definition for Ubuntu is "humanity." I'm not sure why folks feel the need to read so deeply into such things.

There's a Zulu phrase that old people use:  Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.

Now, someone actually translated this as "To be human is to affirm one's humanity by recognising the humanity of others in its infinite variety of content and form" (Van der Merwe, 1996:1)

However, literally (I prefer literal translations over flowery ones.) it means

Umuntu - A person
ngumuntu - is a person
nga - through/by
bantu - people (actually abantu)

Ubuntu (the Linux distro) has the tag line of "Linux for Humans." It's the African "PeoplePC" I say.

P.S. I have a question for the non-native English speakers who read this blog. When you all learned English, were the teachers digging into the details of English words, giving you paragraphs worth of explanations to define a single word? Or did they keep it simple?

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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April 25, 2005 22:33
As it is, I am still learning. The good teachers will take their time, will tell you about the etymology of the word, the way it can be interpreted. The bad ones will say one word: tree=arbol. And while sometimes the one word will do, some words, like visceral, take a bit.
April 26, 2005 0:03
Although a native speaker of the language, I appreciate knowing the details and history of words because I know that English is a veritable hodge-podge of other languages. For those interested, this is a very good source of information:
April 26, 2005 0:06

Scott, funny thing: That magazine I linked to actually will contain, in the next edition, an article titled, "Name Choices among the Xhosa of South Africa." Might be interesting to you.
April 26, 2005 0:30
I love Ubuntu - I've been using it for several months and am typing on it now. However, I would disagree that it's good for older machines. Last week I purchased another 512Mb RAM to bring the system up to 1Gig because 512 was really not enough.

Part of the problem is the huge memory leak in Firefox - but the rest is down to Gnome. IMHO, it has a higher working set than a WinXP/Win2K3 box.
April 26, 2005 0:44
When you start to learn a language, the "learners" appreciate it most when their teachers keep it simple. After that I spent a year in the USA and my english got pretty damn good and now I am really interested in the history of words and their meanings.
April 26, 2005 1:36
"It's the African "PeoplePC" I say" -

do you mean the South African "People PC" ?

April 26, 2005 2:07
Touche ian, touche!
April 26, 2005 16:56
You say: "I am continually shocked - especially on American news - that Africa is refered to as if it were a country and not a continent with 1/5 of the planet's total land mass.". Please don't get me wrong, I don't want to start a war here, but I must reply: "I am contiunally shocked - especially on Canadian news - that America is refered to as if it were a country and not a continent that spans both hemispheres." ;-)
April 27, 2005 5:11
English teachers? For us "teacher" of English was Sierra quests, Infocom adventures and Borload/Microsoft help files. given quality of help systems then, no need to say we learned more from Sierra and Infocom, especially syntax you may still see in my posts.

"Talk Christina" (what was that centaur daughter name at apple stand?)
"Look apples" : you see fresh fruites of the summer
"Buy" : Buy what?
"Bye apples" : Christina waves you goodbye
"Talk Christina"
"Buy apples"
May 23, 2005 15:53
I am from South-Africa, where Ubuntu comes from. The guy that made the whole Ubuntu project a possibility was Mark Shuttleworth, the same guy that was the first African to make it to space.

He has put in a lot of effort in developing African countries, not only South-Africa, so I don't really question the name that much, it's from Africa and it sounds cool.

That said, I think it's cool that you go through such a lot of trouble to research the African continent!
November 26, 2005 22:05
It is to be remembered European and Arabic words are sound dependant to communicate an idea, where African, Asian and most indigenous cultures the ideas are the words. Conjagating words is the exaple of sound based words verse character based language. I am in love with the open source movement because of this engagement of ideas. Viva GNU!!!

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.