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Review of  Language in South Africa

Reviewer: Peter Unseth
Book Title: Language in South Africa
Book Author: Rajend Mesthrie
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Issue Number: 14.1596

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Date: Wed, 4 Jun 2003 14:02:31 -0500
From: Pete Unseth
Subject: Language in South Africa

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

Peter Unseth, Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics and SIL International

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 market.

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

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 explained.

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 attitudes.

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

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

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.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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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