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Eish, it's definitely English

Maverick Life

South Africa, Maverick Life, Media

Eish, it’s definitely English

Why do South African English-speakers say “now-now”, or “rock up”, or the ubiquitous “shame”? Rajend Mesthrie has the answers in Eish, but is it English? By REBECCA DAVIS.

Regular listeners of the SAfm radio programme Word of Mouth will be familiar with University of Cape Town linguistics professor Rajend Mesthrie. The Sunday programme features a group of experts discussing various language issues. Often listeners appear to be elderly individuals who have been greatly put out by a mispronunciation by a South African TV presenter, or what they see as the gradual encroachment of “nonsensical” modern terms on English. Sometimes it is difficult not to feel some of their issues have nothing much to do with language, and everything to do with a sense of unease and confusion at a rapidly-shifting modern landscape. That’s the thing about language, of course: extricating it from matters of identity is an almost impossible task. 

In some ways linguists are precisely the wrong people to have on the radio panel, where the listeners often seem to be expecting a judgement handed down on whether some usage is right or wrong. The first rule of linguistics is “Thou shalt not prescribe”. What linguists do involves observing and documenting language in all its everyday grittiness and mess, without judging “correctness”. That’s the job of English teachers. There’s no such thing as “right” and “wrong” for linguists, merely language forms more widely used than others, or accorded more social prestige for historical reasons.

Within English alone, there is a great deal of diversity between the varieties of the language spoken worldwide. While UK English has been taken to be the gold standard of the language because of its origins, nobody would argue against saying “sidewalk” instead of “pavement”. Yet in South Africa there still seems to be a great deal of anxiety about what constitutes “proper” English, as evidenced by correspondents to Word of Mouth. This is the result of historical factors in this country, where perceived proficiency in English is taken as a marker of social prestige and educational success. But one of the most refreshing elements of Rajend Mesthrie’s Eish, but is it English? is his insistence that all the divergent varieties of English spoken in South Africa be celebrated equally.

At this juncture in South Africa’s history, it may seem an odd time to write a book about the use of English in South Africa. The notion might seem regressive, colonial, even a bit politically incorrect. Mesthrie is quick to correct this.

“Despite being a minority language in South Africa, English is the most-shared language,” said Mesthrie. “Post-1994, English is the language which has spread the furthest as a second language. As such, discussing issues about English leads us to talk about all South African communities.”

His book was created in an unusual form, compiled out of six lengthy conversations Mesthrie had with editor and publisher Jeanne Hromnik, with the idea that the publication would capture the spirit of Word of Mouth in book form. Mesthrie explained that he was initially not keen on the idea of producing a popular work about language, saying he told Hromnik it was “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle in a haystack than for academics to do popular books”. Fortunately, Hromnik wouldn’t take no for an answer. The result is an extremely readable, accessible book which nonetheless bears all the hallmarks of Mesthrie’s years of rigorous scholarship.

Some of the most interesting parts are the initial chapters on the history of English within South Africa. Although every schoolchild knows the first English settlers only arrived in the country in 1820, it is likely locals knew a few words of English (and Dutch and Portuguese) even prior to Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival in 1652, through trading at the Cape. It is believed that the first “indigenous” South African to speak English may have been a Khoikhoi man called Coeree, who was kidnapped in the early 1600s and taken to England to learn English before being shipped back to South Africa as an interpreter. To him the plaintive phrase “Coeree home go” is attributed, while he was miserably shivering in England, possibly one of the first sentences spoken in English by a South African. The word order of the sentence reflects the structuring of the Khoi languages of the Cape.

Because South African English derived largely from the English spoken by the 1820 settlers, however, a vital source for linguists are the diaries and chronicles penned by those early settlers, which hold keys to how they would have talked and sounded. Settler Jeremiah Goldswain wrote an account of his arrival, for instance, which includes sentences such as: “The next morning som of ous went erley on dack to see if we could disern aney of they sheep climen up the hills with thear large tales”. Of particular interest here are the vowels Goldswain employs: assuming he is using a phonetic spelling, his text gives us some clues as to the accents of those early settlers.

The majority of British settlers came from the southern English counties, bringing the dialects and accents of those areas, although Mesthrie notes that there was also a Cockney influence thought to have particularly had an impact on the accents of Eastern Cape English-speakers. The province of Natal drew more middle-class English people, and when the Gold Rush brought people from all over South Africa together, the Natal English became the most prestigious variety. Over time, the accents associated with white South African English-speakers experienced a process of vowel “flattening”, or “weakening”, which is where we get the classic accent which sees “I” pronounced as something closer to “Ah”.

To speak of varieties of South African English means, unavoidably, to distinguish them by the race groups which speak them. This can be tricky in a South African context. “When we discuss matters pertaining to features of dialects, second languages and specific ethnic groups, there is a danger of being misunderstood, as if we are promoting stereotypes,” Mesthrie writes. But it is nonetheless a verifiable fact that there are characteristics of spoken English in this country which, at least historically, have predominantly featured in the language of black South African, coloured, Indian and white speakers. To identify these is not to hold them up to ridicule – it is simply part of the linguistic project of building up a picture of what South African English looks and sounds like in its totality.

Unique grammatical constructions from black South African English include forms like “I can be able to do X” (meaning “I am able to”). Intriguingly, Mesthrie finds that this construction was very common among Renaissance writers – so anyone using this may be accurately described as speaking the language of Shakespeare and Dryden.   Another feature of black South African English is the spelling out of all elements of a sentence, where English commonly deletes certain words: such as “As it can be seen from recent statistics”, rather than “As can be seen”. Black South African English also tends to retain the infinitive, in constructions like “Why do you let your children to speak Zulu?” This is derived from the fact that in African languages you can’t delete the infinitive as you can in English.

Mesthrie is quick to note, however, that “the new generation of middle-class young black people have jettisoned all of these features”. They endure in the English spoken by “those who attended older township schools and still live in a black township community”.

Cape Flats English favours a “did go” construction, as in “we did go the beach”, which Mesthrie notes again has a prestigious pedigree that embraces the work of Wordsworth, Shakespeare and the Bible. South African Indian English avoids phrasing questions via inversion, preferring “You saw him?” to “Did you see him?” A typical feature of SA Indian English involves the phrase “too much of”, as in “too much of fun”. This is a carry-over from Indian English. Then there are grammatical forms which are uniquely South African, but used across all groups, such as “I was busy” to mean “I was in the process of doing something” – such as “I was busy sleeping when he knocked on my door”.

The book’s most enjoyable aspects involve vocabulary rather than grammar, however. We learn that “now-now” as a marker of time was likely borrowed from Malay; that “gogga” and “quagga” come to us via Khoisan languages; and that “neh”, as a sentence-ender (“You’re coming, neh?”) is a probable import from Tamil. “Mealie” comes from the Afrikaans “mielie”, which in turn comes from the Portuguese “milho”; “braai” from the Dutch “braden”, to roast; and the “bunny” in “bunny chow” is courtesy of the Gujarati word “banya”, meaning merchant or trader. “Y’all”, favoured by Indian English speakers, owes its origin not to the US but to Mauritius, via French Creole workers on the Natal sugar plantations.   

Some of Mesthrie’s proposed etymologies strain credulity a little, but there’s too little evidence to be certain. “Larney” (meaning a rich or posh person) from “Hollander”, anyone? “Tsotsi” from “zootsuit” (a suit with narrow trouser-legs)? The latter was the claim of Trevor Huddleston, but Mesthrie supplies an alternative derivation – the Sotho verb “go tsotsa”, to rob. As always, there is a chicken/egg question at play here, however – the verb form might conceivably have arisen from the slang “tsotsi”.

One question the book doesn’t offer a concrete answer to is the origin of the word “eish”, despite its prominence in the title. (Mesthrie says the title was not of his choosing, and when the publishers badgered him to submit an idea, he had suggested “Fracking in the Karoo”.) The final chapter notes only that it is “a kind of complaint about hardships”, and that “it is widely used locally and can express anything from surprise to displeasure”.

The borrowing hasn’t all been one-sided – South Africa has supplied English with words like “apartheid”, “laager”, “veld”, “trek”, and “commando”. Interestingly, South African Indian usage also produced the term “satyagraha”, or “peaceful resistance”, which Gandhi brought back with him to India in 1914 after his years in South Africa. There are also some terms which you might be surprised to hear are uniquely South African – “bottle store”, for one.

Both the book and its author are so likeable it seems almost churlish to offer any criticism. However, one weakness is the organisation of the material, with each chapter only loosely themed around topics like humour, vocabulary and so on. The effect is a little scatter-gun, and leaves the work feeling a touch insubstantial, though this is perhaps an inevitability when trying to translate fairly complex technical subjects for popular consumption.

Eish, but is it English? serves as a welcome reminder of just how diverse and colourful the varieties of English spoken in South Africa are. One hopes irate letter-writers who complain about “slipping standards” on broadcast media will read it and resolve to take a chill-pill, china, neh? DM


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