The politics of English in South Africa

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1 Introduction: A Sociolinguistic Pro le of South Africa

2 The History of English in South Africa
2.1 The Colonial Period (1806-1885)
2.2 The Era of the New Society (1885-1945)
2.3 The Post War Era (1945-1990's)
2.4 The New South Africa (1991-present)
2.5 South Africa's Constitutional Provisions on Language

3 The Status and the Function of English in South Africa
3.1 South African English (SAfE) and its varieties

4 Pluralingualism in a Democratic South Africa: A Delusion?

5 Conclusion: Will South Africa 'live Mandela's Dream' ?


1 Introduction: A Sociolinguistic Pro le of South Africa

Before one can start discussing the language policy of South Africa, it is important to stress its diversity of language and culture groups. Around 25 languages are used in South Africa by more than 44.8 million people

. That is the result of the in ux of various groups of people to that region over the last centuries, meaning not only the by the African themselves, but also by people from Europe (Portuguese, Dutch, French, Germans, and British) and also from the East (Malaysia, Indonesia and India). Nevertheless, the majority of South Africans, almost 80% of the population, use an African language as their home language.1

The language situation in South Africa has for a long time been, and still is, quite di cult. Here, the indigenous languages of the South African people met with the Eu- ropean languages of the colonists, intermixed and coexisted with the many languages that were already spoken as mother tongues or as rst languages. Like in many other former colonies, the European languages had then been used by those who held political power, and who considered the African languages as inferior. Both the European (English and Afrikaans2 ) and the African languages were there- fore distinguished into two varieties of prestige and referred to as H (high) or L (low) languages.

The whole time, the indigenous languages were treated the same way as in most colonial countries: they were either neglected or supported as far as it helped the white minority to stay in power; their speakers accepting the fact that their languages were degraded to the L status, whereas the European languages turned into the H status. (Smit, 1996, 9)

1 Introduction: A Sociolinguistic Pro le of South Africa

During the apartheid regime, there was a change in the perception of the English language; while Afrikaans became the symbol of oppression through the white settlers, English was considered neutral, and it was used for nation-wide communication by the liberation movement. (Smit, 1996, 11) By the end of the apartheid in the 1990s, a huge variety of African languages coexisted, but English and Afrikaans were the leading languages in economy, in the labour market and in governmental decisions, excluding many millions of non-speakers in the whole of South Africa from participating. In other words, the linguistic situation was quite con ictual, and so a change needed to be brought about. An agreement was nally found in 1993, when a Constitutional change declared the main eleven languages spoken in South Africa as o cial languages, turning the once discriminatory language policy into one of the most progressive on the African continent.

However, until today, the linguistic situation in South Africa is still quite di cult. Especially the use of English is a problematic one. Therefore this paper intends to give an overview of the politics of English in South Africa.

Even though this paper wants to concentrate on the current status of English in South Africa, it is necessary to make a digression into the language policy of the country rst, and to explain its varieties to British English. Moreover, it is important to allude to the history of the use of the English language in South Africa, in order to fully understand why it is so controversially debated, and why English is seen as a bearer of hope for many black people on the one hand, but has failed to ful l these dreams on the other.

2 The History of English in South Africa

The history of South Africa is marked by migration, ethnic con ict, the seizure of political power, and the anti-Apartheid struggle. The use of the English language dates back to the seizure of the Cape from the Dutch in 1806 by the British, and can from that time on be functionally divided into four periods.

2.1 The Colonial Period (1806-1885)

In the rst fourteen years of the English presence in South Africa there were no patterns of English as a mother tongue emerging. In fact, the majority of these English colonists came to South Africa for temporary military and administrative posts only. Even though the English were quantitatively fewer than the Dutch, whose population was from a long time well established, the British soon dominated the public life. In addition, after the 1806 o cial occupation by the British Forces, the British government undertook several policies in order to anglicise the colony. As part of this e ort, several teachers, school masters and missionaries were brought from England in order to facilitate the spread of the language. In 1822, English became the only o cial language of the colony, but still Dutch persisted in the private sphere.

The rst local form of English that developed in the South African colonies was Dutch- English, a non-mother-tongue variety mainly marked by accent, whereas the rst mother tongue variety grew among the children of the 1920s settlers, the rst wave of organised British immigrants that settled in the Eastern Cape. (De Klerk, 1996, 20) Contacts with the South African indigenous population, and in part intermarriage, started to shape the English language: vocabulary loans from Dutch and Xhosa, se- mantic shifts and a pronunciation in uenced by Dutch-English began to be integrated in the local English language.


1 Statistics South Africa 2003 -

2 Afrikaans is a descendant of Dutch which was in uenced by Malayo-Javanese and the Khoi languages. (cf. Silva, 1997)

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The politics of English in South Africa
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Department of English and American Studies)
The Politics of English as a Global Language
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ISBN (Book)
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English, South, Africa, Politics, English, Global, Language
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Patricia Patkovszky (Author), 2008, The politics of English in South Africa, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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