Language and identity in South Africa

Term Paper, 2007

17 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Multilingualism in South Africa
2.1 South Africa’s official languages
2.2 Definition Bilingualism / Multilingualism
2.3 Development of Language Use in South Africa

3 Identity and Language
3.1 Definition Identity
3.2 Language Value and Power
3.3 South African Identity

4 Conclusion

5 References

1 Introduction

Since 1996, South Africa is a country of 11 official languages. Some of them interfere more than others but each of them contributes to creating the South African English[1]. SAE “is an established and unique dialect, with strong influences from Afrikaans and the country's many African languages.”(SA info) So when all South Africans speak their lingua franca and their mothertongue[2] they are at least bilingual if not multilingual. What I want to find out here, is whether bilingualism means obtaining several cultures in South Africa or if the use of the powerful SAE, which is also called ‘killer-language’, leads to a loss of cultures.

English, of course, seems to be a global lingua franca and therefore it is powerful and it intends a higher education of its speakers. In South Africa, “fewer than ten per cent of people speak English at home.”(Spot on) but “all South African pupils learn English, and it’s the language most schools use to teach other subjects.” (Spot on). That is a great chance for the pupils but problems arise when some children speak better than their teachers who learned their mothertongue or the former official language, Afrikaans, themselves.

2. Multilingualism in South Africa

2.1 South Africa’s official languages

The eleven languages spoken in South Africa are: Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga. These languages are officially guaranteed equal status by government which is promoting multilingualism.

Afrikaans comes from the Dutchmen and “was just a spoken language while proper Dutch was what the people wrote. Today, Afrikaans is spoken mostly by Afrikaners.” (Spot on). In 1822, Dutch was replaced by English as the official language of the colony. (Spot on). Today it is obvious that the role allocation is not dependent on any colony but of what has achieved by the people. The following scheme shows how many people speak which language:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(source: SA Info)

As South Africa is multilingual, this scheme shows what the people speak at home and not what the people are able to speak. Zulu and Xhosa are the languages spoken by most people in South Africa. Both are Bantu languages and historyically these are varieties of one and the same language. What one speaks at home is usually the so called mothertongue. This holds for Western countries but Victor Webb says there is a first language, that language of the father and that should be spoken at home. The language of the mother is not the mother-tongue but naturally spoken when the father is not at home. Webb takes the term ‘mother-tongue’ literally if I spin on: the first language is ‘father-tongue’. The language spoken outside home depends on where one lives but at school it is English all-over South Africa. Webb suggests not to count the languages in order of use but to use the terms primary and non-primary language. He admits immediately that “these could provide an inaccurate profile.” (Webb: 2000: 76). Every common term is an inadequate definition as ‘mother-tongue’ in a country of eleven official languages.

There are four languages that are spoken more at home than English. That are Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa and Sepedi. But

[i]n terms of its status English is by far the dominant language of the country, and is South Africa’s most important non-primary language. It is the home language of 40% of the white people, a sixth of the coloured people and practically all the Asian people. (Webb: 2000: 74)

English is omnipresent all-over South Africa since it is the school language and prominent in the media and government. But in order to keep indigenous languages, there are several Zulu soap operas on TV, as well as there are newspapers and organisations for African indigenous languages. All of these ways only reach a part of the population of South Africans in case they fulfil these conditions: being able to read or having television which both can not take for granted.
2.2 Development of Language Use in South Africa

Language and identity are closely related to each other. As I mentioned before, Afrikaans was introduced to South Africa by the Dutch in the 17th century. It spread out very quickly and substituted other African languages. “By the middle of the 19th century, Afrikaans was the lingua franca in the Cape Colony” (Webb: 2002: 74) because it was spoken by the majority of the, “lower class of coloured and white people”. (Webb: 2002: 74) After 1948, “Afrikaans was strongly promoted in public domains, eventually achieving functional equivalence with English.” (Webb: 2002: 74) These public domains were ruled by white people who suddenly spoke the same language as these coloured and black people they segregated during Apartheid. This strong connection between Afrikaans and Apartheid, language of oppressors, lead to a refusal of the language. In 1994, after Apartheid, Afrikaans was restricted to public use. Until today Afrikaans has this flat aftertaste.

The Bantu languages came from Central Africa at around 800 AD. Bantu is an umbrella term for a net of African languages some of which are more related than others. Nine of them belong to the eleven official South African languages. As they all have other names its relation is not always obvious. Some of these languages only differ like varieties of one language so one speaker can understand the other and among other languages this is not the case. That is a question of locality. I will not go into detail in study of Bantu lanuages because the details are not of interest for this paper and the details I found were contradictory.

A change of language use is established in school education. Heike Niedrig says a school should be responsible for linguistical and cultural competences but effectively it establishs the general acknowledgment of the dominant language. As “Language has always been a contentious issue in education in South Africa” (SA languages) I will just give a very brief overview. In 1963, the Transkei initialized, against general commendation, that Xhosa has to be learnt until fourth form and English afterwards. Other homelands followed this example in the following years. The general commendation was the ‘Department of Bantu Education’ which is based in the 1953 Bantu Education Act that forced Black South Africans to be uneducated. In 1971, after education uprisings, there was a reformation. After three long years of consideration one redecided for a 50:50 education: English and Afrikaans in equivalent parts. As mentioned before, Afrikaans was not in favour of Black South Africans. That and an other changes within the school system led to a strike in 1976. The ministry was demanded to have a quick solution.

So when they are given the choice, parents always chose English for their children “to ensure [them] a successful financial and social future” (SA languages). Facing the future, “parents may think it necessary for pupils to know an international language such as English.” (SA languages). Parents always want the best for their children and they early recognised a connection between success and English.

Today, “English is the most spoken language in official and commercial public life - but only the fifth most spoken home language”. (SA info) To be able to speak English implies a certain education and the better the English the better the education. In succession of the former education current teachers cannot guarantee to teach proper English. Some people do not mind because the status of the English language has grown up to its negative. Peter Lucko states in his essay “Is English a Killerlanguage?” the opinion that English has murdered African languages. The influence of English is so big that it does not allow other languages besides. The term ‘killerlanguage’ often arises in connection with English replacing indigenous languages such as African or Indian languages. In capitalistic times, economic growth is valued higher than historical customs. Lucko does not agree that a language can be ‘murdered’ at all. Therefore a language would have to be a creature or at least something that is alive so it can die.

2.3 Definition Bilingualism / Multilingualism

As mentioned before, there is no appropriate term for one’s mother-tongue. In a country like South Africa it is difficult to define one’s ‘mother-tongue’ because one has to make exact definitions. When it is the dominant language spoken at home, is it the father’s or the mother’s language. It can also be the language spoken on the streets or the school language. That depends on where the child spends most of its time. A sagacity in Africa says: it needs a village to raise a child. So whatever is spoken at home, a child has to learn several languages to be part of society. But the child can learn a language as good as its best speaker. “Development of two languages depends on the type and amount of input the child receives in both languages.” (Asha) That includes that one has to speak with the child. For example, when the father leaves home and he was the only spokesperson of a certain language, the child will not learn it.

Bilingualism means to be able to speak two languages well and almost at the same level. In the best case none of them is dominant. “But sometimes, they [children] know one language better than the other. The language a child knows better is called the dominant language . Over time the dominant language may change, especially if a child doesn’t use it regularly.” (Asha) A child cannot choose for itself which language to use dominantly but when circumstances or outside influences change the dominance of a language may change as well. There arise many questions in the Western countries whether or not to educate a child bilingual. The child could be confused and mix grammars and finally it could speak neither of the languages properly. Or it could even stop speaking at all. Western parents care about speech and language problems a child could achieve. In South Africa, there is no question if one educates a child bilingually because of those language varieties. Bilingualism is the minimum in South Africa most children have to be multilingual.

Mixed-blood children are bilingual children. They have the great opportunity that they already have two cultures so they are tolerant for a new one. For them it is easier to find their new role in society. Adults have more problems to find their place in society. But an identity does not create itself. Adults do not know how to combine two lives: the one they are offered now with all its possibilities and chances, with its new wealth and the English language and on the other hand the indigenous life of their ancestors with all its customs and the own language. One can describe their situation as ‘Lost in-between’. Greg Ardé has initialised the new South African Spirit and looks forward “Perhaps Africans shouldn’t be so hung up on where they come from and who they are.” (Ardé: 03/07: 20) He does not believe in creating an identity or build one from the past and the new world but take everything what the world offers. Ardé does not mention language either because he does not care. The new South Africa for him is English and he does not feel that any language is murdered by English.

Multilingualism works like bilingualism but here the people speak more than two languages. Therefore one has a dominant language. Not each influence has the same value so the child decides for that language it uses most. In South Africa, like everywhere else, that depends on the child’s living conditions. The dominant language can be the one spoken at home or the one it learns at school even the one it uses to play outside with friends. The child has more options to choose between languages. It has a certain vocabulary for what it does in each language. For example it may know more English words in educational matters but more Bantu words in family or working matters. What is more, “multilingual people possess a more developed facility for handling cross-cultural contact, and they have an empathetic attitude towards speakers of languages other than their own” (Webb 2000: 80).

On the other hand, the language’s richness has the negative effect that one wishes to have the ability to communicate with everyone. In 1887 already, there was Zamenhof who had the idea of a global language. Not to prefer a language, country or power, he had the idea of an absolutely new and easy language. That was Esperanto. But Esperanto was, and still is, a planned language. It has no culture and no one speaks Esperanto mothertongue so one has no chance to pass it to the next generation. Each generation has to decide on its own to appreciate it or not.

Not that global but recently, Europe had a similar idea: to establish ‘Europe’ as a language, that is more than a lingua franca, it should represent a European identity. Finding an identity through language leads me to the next point.

3 Identity and Language

3.1 Definition Identity

Identity is an abstract noun. One proofs one’s identity with help of an identity card but it says nothing more than a few dates and gives a picture of a person. A person’s identity is the inner unit; this ‘thing’ a person calls ‘self’. The ‘self’ is built cornerstone after cornerstone by oneself and by others. Identity is not always stable. A break of one’s personal cornerstone can lead into an identity crisis. A personal cornerstone in one’s identity can be: culture, family, belief and, of course, language. South Africa, the country of a hundred languages, has an ambivalent identity. It is ambivalent because it has had a black and a white identity, especially during the years of Apartheid. This attitude inside the people did not change overnight. Apartheid was abolished, Afrikaans was banned out of the class rooms but the attitude one has to work out alone. One not only has to rethink ‘highly’ of others but of oneself.

3.2 Language Value and Power

“From the linguistic point of view, no language is inherently superior to another.” (Eckert) That means for linguists each language has the same value and importance. Common peoples are no linguists and they stick to the language that is widespread.

The value of Afrikaans sank drastically after Apartheid. It is not in use in political matters anymore. Bantu languages never had any power and it is related to Black South Africans. So a powerful global language which already existed in South Africa was chosen in order to be learned at school and to be used in politics. Heike Niedrig explains the way a language can take from speech communtiy to political dominance. It is the same way the African National Congress (ANC) took to achieve any acceptance in its beginnings. English was their common language and the members agreed in ‘English only’ in order to reach more people. The more members they won, the more acceptance English reached. In consequence of the steadily growth, English spread out into more institutions and finally, until 1994 - together with the ANC, the leading organisation of South Africa.

English is valued for its usefulness as an instrument for international contact and communication, as a means of access to all domains of human achievment, as a symbol of prestige and civilisation, and as a language of wider communicationin formal public domains within the country and within large parts of Africa. Since English-speaking South Africans were largely opposed to Apartheid, it is regarded as a politically ‘neutral’ language.(Webb 2000: 84)

Literally, English is not politically ‘neutral’ but rather the most powerful language in global politics. English seems to be the longly awaited key into society. It is the language the ANC uses and so it has become “a symbol of the struggle for liberation from the Apartheid yoke.” (Lucko 2003: 161) And as lingua franca, English has the widest intersection of people who can be understood. In 1991 already, English reached a higher status of knowledge than Afrikaans in speaking, writing and reading (Webb 2000: 78). The language’s power ascertains its value in addition to that South Africans value their own languages less than English. That is a circle:

Children recognize that their parents see this language as a symbol of modernity and prestige and consequently gradually stop talking the local language. This mirrors the typical process of language death; people become ashamed of their own language and abandon it in favour of a more prestigious one. (Eckert)

History has shown that forcing South Africans to their own languages means to keep them uneducated and apart from society. That is, what most South Africans want to avoid: being held at minimum. Children sense their parents attitude and take it over. To keep the picture of language death, one can say that it is more a language suicide (see Lucko) as the children have no sympathy for the languages of their parents and grand-parents. But committing suicide is active while a language’s suicide is the passivity of speaking.

It cannot be the speaker’s intention to lose his or her culture. One decides for another language for its usefulness but one loses sight of the indigenous culture. “So if a language is no longer used, this is not only a loss for its speakers but for humanity as a whole, robbing it of a unique angle for viewing reality. (Lucko: 2003: 155) That sounds dramatic in a way, but if one generation stops speaking, it works out like a snowball effect.


[1] I will use the abbreviation SAE for South African English in the following.

[2] I will later explain what mothertongue in South Africa means exactly.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Language and identity in South Africa
University of Duisburg-Essen
English in Africa
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This essay offers a structured overview of questions of language and society in South Africa since the end of the apartheid period. Problems concerning language identity, language planning and language in education....
Language, South, Africa, English, Africa
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Daniela Kröner (Author), 2007, Language and identity in South Africa, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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