The Language(s)

May 13, 2010

The official South African language is English. This is good news for us. Although I have to say, I’ve blended in better as a German in America than I have here. Just last week, I entered our real estate agent’s office, and was told how funny it was that “only people with accents” had come by that day. I was somewhat offended to be counted among “people with accents” but that is precisely what I am in this country.

In addition to English, there are many other languages spoken in the rainbow nation. The country’s constitution guarantees equal status to 11 official languages:
English, Afrikaans, Ndebele, Sepedi, Xhosa, Venda, Tswana, Southern Sotho, Zulu, Swazi and Tsonga. While English is the language most widely used and understood, it is far down the list when looking purely at mother tongue. On that list, Zulu is at the top, as the mother tongue of around 24% of South Africa's population, followed by Xhosa at 18%, Afrikaans at 13%, and English at 8%. Some of these language actually have common roots. Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele are also referred to as the Nguni languages and are fairly similar. The same is true for the Sotho languages, Tswana, Sepedi and Sesotho. It is not uncommon for black South Africans to speak more than five of those languages.

Afrikaans is descended from 17th century Dutch and became its own official language in 1925. I’d have to verify this with my Dutch relatives, but in my opinion it is a simpler version of Dutch. Especially the written version is almost understandable for someone who speaks German. For a complete discussion of all the South African languages, SouthAfrica.info is a great site.

Almost all schools use English as language of instruction. At Dainfern College, the additional mandatory languages are Afrikaans and Zulu, with the option of choosing one of the two starting in grade 6. Confronted with this choice, and knowing almost nothing when we first arrived here, both boys decided to take Zulu. Felix because he thought Zulu was cool, and Zax because he was afraid that Afrikaans might mess up his German. hen again, that would have made for a much easier language to learn. Zulu seems strange at first sight, with words that seem unnecessarily long and cumbersome, and then there are a number of different endings to adjectives depending what letter the corresponding noun starts with. I’m not kidding. At least that’s what I’ve understood after a first glance at Felix’s workbook. But he seems excited about it. He loves his teacher, Mama Mncube. The “c” after the “n” comes across as a sound like clicking your tongue. It’s very hard to get right!

Thank goodness the actual language spoken here is English, you might think. But woah! Not all English is the same. Here is a first cursory vocabulary from what I’ve picked up so far:
Am. English = S.A. English

sweater = jersey
trunk = boot
vest = slipover
pants = trousers
traffic light = robot
math = maths
eraser = rubber
barbecue = braai
night light = I have no idea but can’t seem to describe it when trying to buy one
underwear = brookies
pick-up-truck = bakkie
three-thirty = half three
sports bag = tog bag
mark your calendar = diarise (now that’s an efficient term!)
Kindergarten = Grade Nought (Zero)
Marihuana = dagga (at least this is what Zax tells me – should I be concerned?)
And while I might get used to the way they say aluminium, tomato, and kilometre, I’m not sure I will ever get used to “schedule," pronounced "shedule."

One more note on language or rather culture: After the kids talked about their new teachers, it became apparent that black teachers are always called “Mama” something, whereas the white teachers are “Mrs.” Noisette and I found this somewhat offensive, as it sounds like something out of Gone with the Wind, but then Felix explained why this is: For Zulus, it is a term of respect that elders, who could be your mother or your father, have to be called Mama or Papa, together with their name, instead of Mrs or Mr. So it is not offensive at all, but respectful.

Along those same lines, I had this interesting conversation with G, my driver: We were talking about the rest of Africa, and the problems people from other countries pose here when coming through the borders. It’s almost funny how that is such a universal complaint – in Germany it would be the Eastern Europeans who are all criminals in the minds of people, in the U.S. it is the Mexicans, and here according to G it is the Nigerians and people from Zimbabwe or Congo coming into the country illegally or as workers who bring drugs and corruption with them. So G started complaining to me about all those corrupt governments and how they can’t run their countries, and that is why people from those countries want to come here to South Africa and mess it up. And then he says this: “I think South Africa is such a good country because it was built by Whites.” He says this with a completely straight face and I’m sure he is dead serious. This of course makes me and my liberal enlightened mind (or what I like to think of as a liberal enlightened mind) extremely uncomfortable and I proceed to talk about the virtues of democracy and freedom and that Apartheid was very wrong. But I don’t think it makes any difference to him. And it is hard to argue against his point.
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