Language and Social History: Studies in South African Sociolinguistics

I picked up Language and Social History: Studies in South African Sociolinguistics seven years ago when I was in Cape Town after my first trip to Tristan da Cunha. This was an academic read comprised of twenty-five essays. Typical of academic collections is that some essays were a breeze to read, most required a slower pace yet a couple were so filled with jargon that I felt that I was only reading them to turn pages. Topics that I found most interesting covered the formation of Afrikaans; German speakers in South Africa; code-switching, code-mixing and convergence in Cape Town; the influence of English on Afrikaans; South African Black English; slang in South African English; and language and language practices in Soweto. The collection’s final three essays dealt with language policy and language planning in the multilingual state that is the Republic of South Africa. The writers asked if English should be the lingua franca; if Afrikaans should be deemphasized; and arguments were raised about indigenous languages and what should be the language of primary school instruction (and for how long) and if bilingualism or multilingualism in education should be pursued. 

The most interesting chapter covered hlonipha, the name given to the women’s language of respect. It is now a dying tradition among Xhosa women upon marriage. When they moved into their husband’s home, they were forbidden to utter words consisting of any of the same syllables within their husband’s name, or even in their in-laws’ names. This language of avoidance imposed considerable hardships on the new wife’s vocabulary, obligating her to develop a new language where new syllables were substituted. One theory that I found interesting, but limiting, is that the click sounds that are associated with the south African Xhosa and Zulu languages were introduced to take the place of forbidden syllables. 

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