Viewing the Emergent City and Its People

Eish, it’s definitely English

A word might be worth a 100 pictures… from DAILY MAVERICK

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.”

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