Africa / Linguistics

A lekker braai in the veld

Languages in South Africa

Before I start, here is a story from Belgium about how sensitive the issue of languages can be. When you travel by train in Belgium the language in which announcements are made depends whether you are in the Flemish-speaking part of the country or the French-speaking area. So, if your next stop is the city of Namur the announcement will be in French, if your train passes through Antwerp it’s Flemish. But what a about Belgium’s capital Brussels which is officially bilingual. Well, at Brussels-North its Flemish first, at Brussels-South its French first and at Brussels Centrals its Flemish first in even years and announcements start in French in odd years.

Now, imagine this system in South Africa where eleven languages are official: Afrikaans (13.5%), English (9.5%), isiNdebele (2.1%), isiXhosa (16%), isiZulu (22.7%), Sepedi (9.1%), Setswana (8.0%), Sesotho (7.6%), SiSwati (2.5%), Tshivenda (2.4%) and Xitsonga (4.5%). 0.5 per cent speak another unofficial language as mother tongue. (Source: Statistics South Africa, Census 2012) Distances between two stops would have to be increased so as to allow announcements in all languages and just imagine how often the order of languages would change during your trip. Luckily that is not the case and instead South Africa is dominated by one language which serves as a lingua franca: English. Although English is spoken by only 9.6 per cent as mother tongue it dominates daily life especially in cities, administration and education with only a few exemptions. This is even more surprising if you look at the dominance of languages in each province. In the Eastern Cape Province for example 83 per cent of the population speak isiXhosa as mother tongue, 55 per cent of the Western Cape’s population speak Afrikaans as mother tongue. Hence, English in South Africa exists in a multicultural and multilingual environment and once you have been to South Africa you soon realise how this environment influenced the English in South Africa.

Language is also a sensitive issue in South Africa. Every year on June 16, South Africa commemorates Youth Day, the day in 1976 when schoolchildren in Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnship) rose up against the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction. Today, the constitution asserts the right of citizens to be educated and deal with authorities in either of the eleven official languages. Government documents are translated but English is favoured by market-forces and it also appears as a neutral and link language in many situations.

English came to South Africa around 1800 and settled at the cape. The early settlers came from different parts of the British Isles but predominantly from southern England. They were mainly of working-class or lower-middle class background. In the middle of the 19th century a second wave of English immigrants came to South Africa, this time from the Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire and of middle-class and upper-middle class background. These immigrants settled in Natal on the eastern seaboard. Thus, two varieties of English in South Africa emerged, one in Natal which had a more ‘prestige’ flavour as it orientated itself to Standard English and “Cape English”, which was characterised by Cockney-like features (a dialect still spoken in certain areas of London). Today’s South African English is largely based on the Natal accent.

South African English (SAfE) is a variety of its own just like American English or Australian English. Therefore it has distinct features regarding phonology (organisation of sounds), grammar and lexicon (wordstock). Let’s start with the hardest part: phonology. It is easier when you can listen to examples so I try to provide some below and won’t bore you with the details. First of all SAfE is nonrhotic. To tell the difference between rhotic and nonrhotic imagine an American English speaker saying the word CAR /kär/ as opposed to a Standard English speaker saying /kɑː/. A salient feature of SAfE is what I would call “vowel stretching”, a linguist would speak of a different phonological quality. So, in South African English /Yes/ does not rhyme with /guess/ it is rather like /Yeees/. What you also frequently hear is: “It’s a pleasure”; in SAfE it does not rhyme with /measure/. In a lot of words derived from Afrikaans the letter /g/ is produced like /ch/ as in German /Achtung/ or Scottish /loch/, at the very back of your throat.  Here are a good examples to give you a glimpse of South African English:

Let’s turn to the lexicon where the features are easier to understand. First of all we find terms denoting the landscape such as veld (open grassland), rand meaning ridge or animals such as bontebok (a type of antelope). When you drive through the veld you may use a bakkie (pick-up truck) but in the city you may turn right at the next robot (traffic light). With regard to cooking we have braai (barbecue), boerewors (literally: farmer’s sausage), sosatie (meat on a skewer) and biltong (dried and salted meat). rooibos (red bush) is well known as are the infamous township and apartheid (separateness).

While I was in South Africa I enjoyed watching a cooking show on TV. Not only because I like cooking and hoped to learn about South African cuisine but also because the candidates came from different areas of the country, had different backgrounds and you could learn a lot about South African English just by listening. After a while you can easily hear if a person has an Afrikaans background when she or he is talking English. They usually “trill” /r/ if it is followed by a vowel and they use a question tag that is pronounced like German /Yaa/ (ja) meaning ‘yes’.

If you are interested in the topic and would like to read more I’d recommend Gunnel Melchers & Philip Shaw “World Englishes”, Hodder Education (2011) which I also used for this article.

Kevin Grecksch

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