by Jacob Dlamini, Business Day
A FRIEND recently sent me the following fragment from the 1983 annual
report of the English Academy of Southern Africa: "To complete the
picture as far as our specifically language-related activities are
concerned: we (the English Academy of SA) were represented at a
‘Military Language Congress’ organised by the SA Defence Force (SADF) at
Voortrekkerhoogte, in May this year; we have finally won our battle to
have the ‘equals’ sign banished when a word is broken at the end of a
line — the hyphen is back, in both English and Afrikaans."
As my friend, with whom I share a dark sense of humour about SA’s past, said: "Hurrah, then, all is well again in the land."
To be fair, the august academy has come a long way since
the glory days of the 1980s, when it was successfully waging war against
the SADF over the latter’s use of hyphens while the SADF was, well,
trying to get a firm grip on that whole business of total onslaughts.
Today, the academy’s vision includes a commitment to a "democratic
society in which effective English is available to all who wish to use
it, where competent instruction in the language is readily accessible
and in which the country’s diverse linguistic ecology is respected". The
vision is noble and realistic. SA does have a diverse linguistic
ecology, with citizens fluent in more than the 11 official languages we
But how many of us appreciate the value of this rich
linguistic ecology? How many of us appreciate what it means to have so
many languages spoken in one country? How many of us continue to
subscribe to the idea that a person cannot be considered civilised and
sophisticated unless that person speaks suiwer English? Some South
Africans insist on treating English as if it is the only language that
matters, the only one worth speaking. Some of us, presumably
dissatisfied with the English Academy’s, eh, abdication of its watchdog
role, have taken it upon ourselves to police who speaks English and how.
How helpful is that? What good is the myth that there is such a thing
as proper English?
When the English (I mean native English speakers from
England — not Grahamstown), say "I was sat", are they mucking up the
Queen’s language? When English-speaking Americans display a unique
relationship with the pluperfect tense (saying such things, for example,
as "She had came" ), are they desecrating English? What about
English-speaking Americans, who insist on using the word bring instead
of take (" I will bring the car to the gas station" instead of "I will
take the car to the gas station")? Are they, too, doing damage to
English? The way people speak English might sound odd to some ears but
only a provincial would dare suggest that there is a proper way to speak
Yes, there are basic rules of grammar and suchlike that
help make languages standard in some ways. But these rules work only
when understood pragmatically. Take the English rule against splitting
infinitives. In some cases, the rule makes perfect sense; in others, it
makes none at all. I believe it was Winston Churchill, a winner of the
Nobel prize for literature no less, who pointed out some of the
absurdities that arise from a strict adherence to the split-infinitive
rule. As is the case with most things in life, rules make sense until
they don’t. One needs to understand the context to know if a rule is
needed or not.
This does not mean languages are a free- for-all. They are
not. But, at the same time, we can’t assume that tenses for example only
ever work one way. Take the example "I was sat." This is a common
expression, especially in the Midlands and northern parts of England.
The expression sounds odd to people raised on South African English, for
whom the correct expression is "I was sitting."
But which sensible South African English- speaker would
dare tell an English northerner, who speaks no other language than
English, that he or she does not know how to speak English? Which
cosmopolitan South African would dare suggest who speaks what quality of
Yet there are people out there with the, eh, confidence to
say that English is "their" language. You can no more claim ownership of
a language than you can claim ownership of oxygen. In a world where the
best English fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries has come from
writers such as VS Naipaul and JM Coetzee, who would dream of making
nativist claims about the ownership of the English language? People
might say what they like about "their" English but they must always
remember what is at stake when languages are "nationalised". For
example, a German anti-Semite is reported to have said once that a Jew
did not become German by understanding Goethe.
People who disagree with my argument might respond with
that well-worn question about what language someone such as me dreams
Well, as a Wits psychology professor once told me, most dreams are silent. Humans speak in tongues but dream in silence.