LINGUIST List 14.1596

Thu Jun 5 2003

Review: Lang Description/Socioling: Mesthrie (2002)

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  • 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 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 experimentation.

    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 & Dailey

    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 identity.

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

    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 overlooked.

    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 Finlayson 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 Heugh 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.