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Language may be fragile, but it is very stubborn to die — a future potjiekos taal awaits Mzansi

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Prof Thabo Ditsele (@BThaboDitsele) is an Associate Professor of Sociolinguistics and Linguistic Anthropology and an NRF-rated researcher at Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria.

Those who will be here 150 to 200 years from today will not sound anything like us or even communicate in languages we desire. Throughout history, new languages and cultures have emerged and the sky did not fall.

Swimming against the tide on the relationship between language and culture requires a lot of courage, I mean lots of it. That tide is a narrative that lacks an appreciation of a record of history on how humankind negotiated its way through centuries.

Ordinarily, I would not begin an article by focusing on myself, but that is warranted here. As a creative writer, I have conceptualised, written and published fiction in my home language, Setswana, and I have also published non-fiction in my second language, English.

Besides being a creative writer, I am a sociolinguist and linguistic anthropologist. Through the latter cap, I have gathered data from speakers of Setswana, Sepitori if you accept that it is a language, and Tsotsitaal, which comprises lexical items embedded in a natural language. I have published academic material on them. I also give radio and television interviews on language matters. So, I walk the walk when it comes to language matters.

This background is material to the critique, submissions and arguments I make in this article – I am not an armchair critic. I am not a language activist. I am a liberal sociolinguist and linguistic anthropologist who often goes where some may not be courageous to go, hence the assumption that I am a language activist.

I cannot resist the temptation to swim against the tide because my intention is to give an alternative viewpoint to a mainstream one, that is, if a people replace their language with another, the sky will fall. Such a viewpoint is aimed at deepening the conversation on the relationship between language and culture in South Africa.

Also, I intend to share what my crystal ball is telling me about the linguistic landscape of this rainbow nation long after our time.

A good place to start is to focus on what is not in dispute. Yes, language and culture are intertwined, thus for best results, a people’s culture should be expressed through a language associated with them. Yes, for best results, children should be taught in their home languages. Yes, for best results, communicating with children in the parents’ home languages will sustain them across generations.

I stress “for best results” because the record of history shows that it is possible to teach culture associated with one group using a different language. Indian South Africans are a good example here. They arrived in South Africa from the 1860s as home-language speakers of Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, among other languages of the Indian subcontinent.

Over the years, they shifted to English in the main, and Afrikaans to a lesser extent. While they shifted towards English and Afrikaans, they passed on many cultural practices from the Indian subcontinent. Their culture is distinct. A few Indian South Africans with whom I have been in the same catchment area know their family histories, among others; the part of the Indian subcontinent where their paternal and maternal ancestors came from and when they arrived in South Africa; they even conscientised me about the “caste system”.

For all intents and purposes, they know who they are, not through Hindi, Tamil or Telugu, but through English or Afrikaans. They are a good example of transference of a people’s culture through other languages.

The shift, loss and death of a language does not prevent humankind from transferring its cultural practices to future generations.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, there are many Japanese Brazilians and Japanese Peruvians who, like Indian South Africans, practise the Japanese culture albeit through Portuguese and Spanish, respectively.

Recently, I had a conversation with my homeboy and a veteran media broadcaster, Tebogo Matima, and he pointed out to me that many San (or Basarwa) people in Botswana, South Africa and Namibia speak either Setswana or Afrikaans as home languages, but the loss of their forebears’ languages did not prevent them from transferring their cultural practices from one generation to the next. They have practised their cultural practices for millennia, the oldest in southern Africa by far.

Even with evidence from southern Africa and abroad, there are people who keep saying that the culture of a people can only be taught or learnt through speaking a language associated with that cultural group; they leave out “for best results” perhaps out of ignorance of humankind’s history.

It could also be that some are aware of humankind’s history, but opportunistically and deliberately omit “for best results” to feed into the panic among unsuspecting members of society who are desperate to hold on to their cultural practices.

If it is possible for Indian South Africans and the San (or Basarwa) people to transfer and sustain their cultural practices even after losing languages which their ancestors communicated in, why is there panic and suspicion that black South Africans would be incapable of doing the same someday?

It will not happen soon

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating the shift, loss, and death of African languages and cultural practices linked to them. Far from it, my submission is that evidence points to humankind’s capacity to transfer cultural practices, albeit through different languages.

The shift, loss and death of a language does not prevent humankind from transferring its cultural practices to future generations. Again, I reiterate that this is not what I pray should happen.

Clearly, many people are unaware that generally it takes up to five generations or about 150 years for a language to die completely. The length of time it takes a language to die depends, among other things, on the institutional support it receives and the attitudes of its speakers towards it; if it receives little or no support with unfavourable attitudes towards it, then it will die sooner. However, if it receives some support but is subjected to unfavourable attitudes towards it, then it will take longer to die.

So, it is very alarmist and disingenuous to suggest that African languages are in such big trouble that they could die during our lifetime; it will not happen that soon.

Nature does not allow vacuums in human communication; it always comes up with alternatives regardless of whether such alternatives are organic or otherwise.

By way of example, if a significant number of nearly six million home-language speakers of Setswana in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia were to suddenly hold unfavourable attitudes towards the language and deliberately stop communicating in it, and the next few generations did the same, then the language would be in trouble four to five generations from today or 100 to 150 years from today, not in our lifetime. Language may be fragile, but it is very stubborn to die.

Let us stretch our imagination to say, 2173, or 150 years from today. Even if nobody spoke the cross-border African languages spoken today in South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho and Botswana, these languages would manifest themselves in other shapes or forms, something akin to Latin. Upon the fall of the Roman Empire, new varieties manifested themselves and settled as Romanian, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese – known as the Romance languages.

Nature does not allow vacuums in human communication; it always comes up with alternatives regardless of whether such alternatives are organic or otherwise.

There is potential that the linguistic and cultural melting pot that South Africans like talking about would some day emerge as a common language and culture with contributions from each language or language cluster, albeit at varying levels depending on their current ethnolinguistic vitality and institutional state support.

This has happened before in South Africa. From the late 1600s, a Dutch-based pidgin began developing from contact between people who spoke different languages in the Cape.

In the late 1800s, that pidgin had settled into a creole called Kitchen Dutch, then formally called Afrikaans, and given official status in 1925. This West Germanic language, which some classify as an African language for political expediency, has many lexical items from Malay languages, that is, Malay and Bahasa Indonesia; Romance languages, particularly Portuguese; other West Germanic languages, particularly German and English; and languages of the Khoi and San people.

Over time, African languages spoken in South Africa have contributed lexical items to this West Germanic language whose matrix or base language is Dutch because of the power this language commanded from the late 1600s to the early 1800s.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Afrikaans as a language is both beautiful and innocent — until it became an instrument of oppression

Yes, we may not like the trajectory of the melting pot. There is nothing wrong with trying to delay or stop it, but we should do so with a full understanding of the unintended consequences of living in multilingual and multicultural settings.

We may not live long enough to experience the lexicon, morphology and phonology of a southern African language in the 2170s, but we may stretch our imagination on what the lexicon, morphology and phonology of such a southern African language would look like.

It is reasonable to predict future cultural practices which are grounded in Western culture practised organically by white South Africans.

In 2014, I published a journal article wherein I presented evidence that English was growing at a faster pace than any other official language in South Africa. So, if this trend continues, there is the potential that English would serve as a matrix or base language of that future southern African language, with major contributions of lexical items from Afrikaans, Nguni languages, Sotho-Tswana languages, Xitsonga and Tshivenda.

Based on the South African linguistic and cultural continuum of influence, I would argue that this would be the order and significance of influence of such a future southern African language. On another day, I would entertain the notion that Act 108 of 1996, the Constitution of South Africa, says that all languages are equal. Who does not know that a continuum I have suggested here exists?

Cultural practices would more than likely follow similar patterns as a linguistic pattern, and that would not be surprising at all considering the characterisation of South Africans by political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi who correctly suggests that black South Africans are a numeric majority and a cultural minority, while white South Africans are a numeric minority and a cultural majority.

It is thus reasonable to predict future cultural practices which are grounded in Western culture practised organically by white South Africans. I would argue that such cultural practices have already permeated throughout the country and region. This perhaps explains why Western cultural practices are usually and consistently the subject of attack and ridicule by linguistic and cultural activists at every opportunity, but more pointedly during Heritage Month.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lack of equity and over-emphasis on isiZulu hampers further development of other African languages

Is such a future southern African language inevitable? Will it be a tsunami? Can it be stopped? How can it be stopped? Who can stop it? One thing is certain though, those who will be here 150 to 200 years from today will not sound anything like us or even communicate in languages we desire.

Throughout history, recorded or not, humankind has managed and succeeded in negotiating its way through a maze called life. Along this journey, new languages and cultures emerged and the sky did not fall. The sky will not fall the day southern Africa has a language with a lexicon, morphology and phonology barely recognisable to us who are alive today.

I believe that such a day will rise, and one need not be a soothsayer to predict it; one only needs to study and understand the relationship between language and culture of the past centuries, analyse contemporary trends, then make an educated guess about a future they will not be part of. Such an educated guess should be made even if it disrupts popular and politically correct narratives about the relationship between language and culture in South Africa.

Change is inevitable and always happens to humankind. It is change that makes humankind adapt to life in his current circumstances. Long after our time, a day will rise in this country and region when communication will take place in a “melted pot language”. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • George Laurens says:

    A beautifully written articly

  • Henry Henry says:

    And potjiekos-type residents also awaits Mzansi.

  • Emile Santos says:

    Afrikaans is simply a phonological evolved variant of Dutch with more than 90% lexical similarity

    English borrowed from French which borrowed from Gaulish and Frankish, Spanish borrowed from Gothic and Arabic and none of them are considered creole, so why is Afrikaans considered to be a creole?

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    A fascinating and insightful take on the intersections of language and culture … which amplify, what I have unwittingly believed in for some time (70+ years) ! Thank you for giving it such clear substance . I also happen to have the heritage of an “indian” language which Gandhi favoured and used in much of his discourse (despite an outright English education) … and relied upon an exceptional translator to scribe/translate his ideas/thoughts into English … a domain which one prominent linguist jocularly described with the question in a text called “But … is it English?”

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