Thursday, 7 July 2005

Let's put an ethnocentric cat amongst the multicultural pigeons

I have been thinking about the pro-Afrikaans lobby that regularly take part in the “taaldebat” (language debate) – especially since the DA’s recent fight with the insensitive billboard.

I am interested in the switch by the Afrikaans “taalstryders” away from Afrikaans as a European language to Afrikaans as a homegrown indigenous language. The merits of the whole language debate aside, I am simply wondering whether promoting Afrikaans as an indigenous language is strategically wise in terms of language politics.

The background is of course our constitution that guarantees the official status of 11 languages in South Africa (The official languages of South Africa are Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu). But of course the result of positing 11 official languages is that English becomes the public language no.1, or the universal/official language, whilst the other 10 languages all recede to local/private status. The de facto situation in South Africa is thus almost a kind of “diglossia.” This is more than mere bilingualism – there is a clear division of labor between the different languages that a speaker employs – the one operates as a low-language and the other as a high-language, and they are used for different purposes and in different contexts. In the case of South Africa, the indigenous languages operate as private languages, whilst English fulfils the role of universal or public language.

Against such a background, claiming similarity between Afrikaans and the other indigenous languages make little sense. A much better strategy, but something the pro-Afrikaans lobby seemingly has not discovered yet, would be one of differentiation; in other words to claim that Afrikaans offers capacities that the other indigenous languages failed to acquire (maybe unfairly, but still they cannot offer their speakers the same kind of cognitive resources).

As a result of the apartheid state’s active promotion of Afrikaans, the language now offers a cognitive/cultural resource to its speakers that give them access to a scientific/technical lifeworld. In the language of Gellner (or Gagiano), Afrikaans gives its speakers access to a high-culture in a way that isiXhosa does not to its speakers. Of course this difference between Afrikaans and isiXhosa as cognitive resources is partly attributable to the promotional efforts of the apartheid state that favoured Afrikaans over (other) indigenous languages. But the efforts of the state to promote and standardize Afrikaans, is not the only reason for this difference; it also has to do with the fact that Afrikaans derives from Dutch – a language that already possessed this high-culture capacity. It would be a far more accurate depiction of the language politics in South Africa to say that Afrikaans needed this state sponsorship to develop its latent capacity, not because it was primarily in competition with indigenous languages, but because it had to attain its high-culture status in proximity to an already existing high-culture language, namely English. In other words, the real competition for high-culture status was with English.

By hook or by crook, Afrikaans is thus different from the indigenous languages, because it has cognitive properties that the other languages do not have and therefore offers more cognitive resources in the real world. Empirically it shows, as Afrikaans is after English the most widely spoken language in Southern Africa.

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