LINGUIST List 14.1596

Thu Jun 5 2003

Review: Lang Description/Socioling: Mesthrie (2002)

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  1. Pete Unseth, Language in South Africa

Message 1: Language in South Africa

Date: Wed, 04 Jun 2003 23:26:14 +0000
From: Pete Unseth <>
Subject: Language in South Africa

Mesthrie, Rajend, ed. (2002) Language in South Africa, Cambridge
University Press.

Announced at

Peter Unseth, Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics and SIL

In the tradition of ''Language in Canada'' and ''Language in
Australia'', (and the much earlier East African series,
e.g. ''Language in Ethiopia''), this book describes broad patterns of
language distribution, use, and policy, along with a specific
descriptions of narrower topics.

At the outset, this book must be distinguished from Webb's 2002 book
with an identical main title, but subtitled ''The Role of Language in
National Transformation, Reconstruction and Development'' announced at and which I
reviewed in The two
books have surprisingly little overlap. Mesthrie's is broader, while
Webb's is more concerned with policy, giving background, proposals,
and rationale. Most of the papers in this volume are revised and
updated from Mesthrie (1995), now happily available to a broader

1. South Africa: a sociolinguistic overview, by Mesthrie 
This is, as expected, a broad overview of sociolinguistics in South
Africa (SA), with a strong historical flavor. The current situation is
very fluid, policy and practice still in fluctuation amid

2. The Khoesan languages, by Traill 
Traill summarizes the earlier distribution of Khoesan (''Bushmen'')
languages in SA, now nearly extinct there, though they left clear
traces in Zulu and Xhosa and Afrikaans. Bantu languages borrowed their
clicks, a possible scenario for this presented by Herbert in chapter
15. He relates several cases of bilingualism and language death.

3. The Bantu languages: socio-historical perspectives, by Herbert &

They give a broad review of Bantu classifications and proposed
migrations, useful for non-specialists. For some of the Bantu
languages of SA, they propose that contact and language shift account
for similarities, rather than genetic relationship.

There are nine Bantu languages officially recognized in SA. However,
many scholars argue that these speech forms do not represent nine
separate speech communities, each speaking relatively standardized
speech forms. Some of these languages are the result of outsiders'
classifications and/or selection as standards.

4. Afrikaans: considering origins, by Roberge 
There is still no unanimity on understanding the processes by which
Afrikaans arose, a topic in which racial presuppositions sometimes
conflict with the data. Clearly it has much Dutch structure, but it
arose in a situation including Khoekhoe, Bantu, non-Dutch Europeans,
and slaves, often living in dispersed farms, with no concentrated
communities. (The slaves were from all over - Benin to Indonesia -
therefore did not bring a shared linguistic heritage.) Modern
Afrikaans reflects the Eastern variety, from an area with a higher
proportion of Dutch settlers; so that standard Afrikaans is the
closest to European Dutch of the earlier varieties.

5. South African English, by Lass 
Lass begins with an introduction to English dialectology, then
discusses present-day dialects of SAE, their users, and their social
significance. He discusses various phonetic patterns in detail,
identifying their users by region, social class, gender and ethnic

6. South African Sign Language: one language or many?, by Aarons and

Schools for the Deaf in SA were generally racially segregated, schools
for African Deaf divided by ''native language''. With combinations of
lip reading and a limited signing system, the Deaf were limited in
communicating across ''language'' lines.

They favor ''natural sign languages'', sign languages ''not trying to
represent English or Afrikaans''. Sign systems that try to depict such
a spoken language are promoted by non-Deaf, and therefore some see
more sign languages in SA.

Among the Deaf (esp. non-White), there is a growing sense of
community, less emphasis on ethnicity. However, many White Deaf still
see themselves as ''Afrikaans'' first, then ''Deaf''. The authors
claim this results in over-emphasis on inability to understand sign
language across racial lines. The authors make no specific claim that
there is now a single sign language in SA, but rather write of the
growing sense of unity among the Deaf. Nowhere in the article do they
do anything but give assertions and anecdotal evidence to answer the
question in their subtitle.

This fascinating article can serve as an introduction to the
sociolinguistics of signed languages, a topic I had previously

7. German speakers in South Africa, by de Kadt 
There are still a number of German speakers in SA, but the language is
strongest where there are fewest speakers, since these are in rural
isolated areas where small homogenous communities maintain the use of
German. The use of German is weakening, by intermarriage, increasing
bilingualism and outmigration.

8. Indian languages in South Africa, by Mesthrie 
Many indentured workers were brought to SA from different parts of
India, speaking many languages. Mesthrie provides a brief discussion
of the use of Fanakalo pidgin by people of Indian origin, but I would
have appreciated more explanation of the languages used for wider
communication by the Indian communities in their early days in SA. His
discussion of koineisation and South African Bhojpuri is only part of
the puzzle.

The use of Indian language is declining, partially as a result of the
fact that the Indian communities have no common Indian language that
they can use for communication among themselves, with Tamil, Urdu, and
Hindi all having loyal, uncompromising followers.

9. Fanakalo: a pidgin in South Africa, by Adendorff 
This article tries to do too much: discuss the origins of Fanakalo,
its current social significance, its grammatical structure, dialect
variation, and also compare it to other pidgins. The references should
help the reader who is interested in learning more on these
topics. The author points out the lexical richness of Fanakalo,
unusual in a pidgin. A snippet of ''Garden Fanakalo'' is given and its
structure is then compared with a much richer corpus of ''Mine
Fanakalo'', but the text of the ''Garden'' variety does not appear to
be from a person who knows any variety of Fanakalo well, judging by
the amount of pure English included.

Adendorff's hypothesis that Fanakalo developed in the interaction
between missionaries and Zulu speakers is sadly incompletely

10. Mutual lexical borrowing among some languages of southern Africa,
by Branford and Claughton
This article consists largely of lists of loans, with discussion of
why some words are more naturalized than others, and evidence for
secondary borrowing. It contains a tantalizingly brief discussion of
the process of standardizing Afrikaans; though now seen as the
language of whites, in the 18th century it had more non- white
speakers than white. They present evidence that English has borrowed
more from Bantu languages than Afrikaans has, a reflection of social

11. Code-switching, mixing and convergence in Cape Town, by McCormick
12. Code-switching in South African townships, by Slabbert and
Chapters 11 and 12 both describe speech communities rich in code-
switching, applying two different approaches. Both deal with matters
of identity, plus theoretical issues of code switching. Slabbert and
Finlayson have worked with Myers-Scotton, and this is reflected in
their approach, including a discussion of her Matrix Language Frame.
Their proposal that growing code-switching will offer an alternative
''possibility of creating multilingual programmes, advertisements,
brochures, political speeches, etc.'' seems unrealistic.

13. Intercultural miscommunication in South Africa, by Chick 
The article focuses on how people from different places, eras, and
ethnic groups handle compliments. It gives evidence that different
groups in South Africa handle compliments differently, creating
misunderstanding in inter-group communications. There is evidence of
changed patterns in handling compliments since the end of apartheid.

14. Women's language of respect: isihlonipho sabafazi, by Finlayson 
Finlayson describes speech behavior among Xhosa women in which a wife
must avoid words that contain the same syllables as found in the names
of her husband's family, a custom found elsewhere in SA. She provides
a useful description of the ways in which women follow these rules of
avoidance, including circumlocutions and an established parallel
vocabulary. Not surprisingly, urbanization has led to weakening of
this verbal avoidance.

15. The sociohistory of clicks in Southern Bantu, by Herbert 
The clicks in the Khoesan languages of southern Africa are a set of
highly marked consonants. But their existence in the adjoining Bantu
languages is even more arresting. Clearly, they are the result of
contact, but there have been competing theories as to the
circumstances, such as the ''invading Bantu males''. Herbert points
out that Bantu languages that have borrowed clicks have not borrowed
other features of Khoesan phonology, e.g. word final consonants. The
borrowing of these clicks is not simply part of a broad pattern of
phonological influence, but a deliberate borrowing of a new type of
consonant. He finds the source of this in ''hlonipha'', (article 14).
Herbert believes that the adoption of these consonants into Bantu
languages allowed women to retain their original vocabulary,
substituting clicks for the original consonants.

16. The political economy of language shift: language and gendered
ethnicity in a Thonga community, by Herbert
The Thonga (Tonga/Tsonga/Gwamba/Ronga) live near the Mozambique/SA
border. Due to various sociolinguistic pressures (including
deportation to Mozambique to those who claimed Thonga identity), there
has been a pressure to identify themselves as Zulu. For over 100
years, Thonga men in SA have been speaking Zulu, while the women
continued speaking Thonga. Recently, women have begun shifting to
Zulu, fewer now officially claim to be Thonga. Thonga women have
deliberately been slower to switch than the men partially because they
have more privileges than in Zulu society.

Both of the following articles about varieties of English in South
Africa would have benefited from some explanation of how speakers of
the dialect in question relate to the standard South African English
and to each other.

17. From second language to first language: Indian South African
English (ISAE), by Mesthrie
ISAE is not simply Indian English spoken in SA, rather it developed in
SA not in India. Sources included European teachers who were not first
language speakers, native speakers of English in SA, and their own
habits from Indian languages. Many of Indian descent (including
younger sibling, mothers, and grandparents) learned English from
children who learned it at school, so they learned it from sources of
limited proficiency.

18. Black South African English (BSAE), by de Klerk and Gough 
BSAE arose from the environment where Black students were taught
English mostly by Black teachers who were not native speakers. As even
more teachers are now non- native speakers of English, and these have
learned their English from earlier generations of non-native speakers,
the English norm among Black South Africans is becoming more and more
divergent from SAE. As with ISAE, some of the patterns that
distinguish BSAE are also found in other Englishes around the world,
some of the patterns of creolization coming into play.

The three following articles form a subsection ''New urban codes'',
describing speech forms that include large amounts of borrowing and
mixing from both Indo-European and African languages, marking a high
degree of distinct identity, and having degrees of association with
criminal gangs and rebellion. However, each article is written
separately with almost no reference to the others, and readers are
left with no clear understanding of how much these speech forms
overlap or differ, either in the minds of the speakers or in the
linguistic details.

19. The lexicon and sociolinguistic codes of the working- class
Afrikaans-speaking Cape Peninsula coloured community, by Stone
Stone describes how he has been systematically studying this dialect
since 1975, giving the article a great deal of depth and authority.
During Apartheid, the Coloured community suffered not only great
limitation of opportunities to advance, but was also stigmatized as
not having a culture. Stone characterizes their dialect, their mother
tongue, as marking a distinct identity, the dialect being distinct
from standard Afrikaans. Within this dialect, he characterizes the
following levels: respectable, disreputable, delinquent, and outcast.

20. An introduction to Flaaitaal (or Tsotsitaal), by Makhudu 
Flaaitaal is a language spoken mostly by Black males in urban
settings, with much structure from Afrikaans, but lexicon from a
variety of sources, including prison jargon. It has a wide variety of
names, but is not to be confused with Fanakalo, which is more for
out-group communication. It is a fascinating introduction to this
lect, but the author gives no clear sign as to whether he believes
Flaaitaal is a pidgin, creole, or dialect.

21. Language and language practices in Soweto, by Ntshangase 
Ntshangase refers to the lect as Iscamtho, but notes that it is
alternatively referred to as Shalambombo, a term which Makhudu also
lists as an alternate name for Flaaitaal. He distinguishes Iscamtho
from Flaaitaal by saying that Afrikaans is the matrix language for
Flaaitaal, but only embedded in Iscamtho. Different varieties of
Iscamtho have Zulu or Sotho (or some other African languages) as their
matrix language. As a move to distance themselves from Afrikaans and
Apartheid, many Flaaitaal speakers shifted to Iscamtho after the
Soweto uprising in 1976.

22. Language planning and language policy: past, present, and future, 
by Reagan
23. Language issues in South African education: an overview, by Murray 
24. Recovering multilingualism: recent language-policy developments, by 
These three articles form a subsection ''Language policy, planning and
education'', dealing with difficult areas, with finances, history,
ethnic identity, and pragmatic issues limiting the options. A further
complication in language policy has been the change of government
ministers who oversee these areas, policy emphases changing with the
ministers. (For a fuller discussion of these issues, see Webb's
volume, though these authors cite none of Webb's writings.)

Overall, the book is a valuable compilation on the sociolinguistics of
SA. Some of the articles are stronger, but all are on important and
useful topics for both general sociolinguists and for SA as it seeks
to build a new society. Its biggest gap is a general study of the
sociolinguistics of using Afrikaans today. The book is an obvious
strong candidate for acquisition for sociolinguistic scholars and
libraries at institutions that have courses in this field. Several of
the chapters could be assigned for undergraduate classes.


Mesthrie, Rajend, ed. 1995 book Language and Social History: Studies
in South African Sociolinguistics. Cape Town: David Phillip.


The reviewer worked for 12 years in Ethiopia, before and after the
drastic changes in language policy that followed the 1991 revolution.
He is on the faculty of the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics.
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